As cities across the U.S. are celebrating Pride this month, I wanted to spotlight one of my favorite queer literary icons: Oscar Wilde. Wilde was an Anglo-Irish writer best known for classic literary works like his satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest
and his Gothic tale The Picture of Dorian Gray
, as well as for his tragic downfall when he was put on trial for the "crime" of homosexuality. Before all of this, however, Oscar Wilde was largely known as the face of the Aesthetic Movement.
Aestheticism was a movement in art and literature during the 19th century that emphasized beauty and "art for art's sake," rather than the need for art to have a deeper meaning or utilitarian purpose. It was also strongly associated with decadence and dandyism. Wilde was introduced to these ideals by his tutors at Oxford and he soon began to embody them in his writings and in his daily life.
By the 1880s, Aestheticism was both highly popular and often mocked or ridiculed. In 1881, the famous theater duo Gilbert and Sullivan produced a comic opera called Patience
, which satired the movement. In a clever marketing move, a friend of the theater invited Oscar Wilde to go on a lecture tour of America and be the poster boy for Aestheticism, so that American audiences could recognize what was being mocked in the opera. While aware that he was being set up to be made fun of, Wilde accepted the invitation and thus launched his lucrative career as a public figure.
The flamboyant image that we have of Oscar Wilde today was largely cultivated during this 1882 lecture tour. Many of the famous photographs of Oscar Wilde with long flowing hair and dressed in luxuriant velvet or fur-lined coats were taken by the American photographer Napoleon Sarony. Wilde was caricatured incessantly in American magazines, but his audiences loved him. When Wilde returned to Europe, he continued to lecture on art and fashion and dabbled in journalism. It was with the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray
in 1890, however, that he became a literary sensation.
At the height of Oscar Wilde's career, everything suddenly came crashing down. In 1895, the father of one of Wilde's male lovers had him arrested on charges of sodomy and "gross indecency." Wilde's literary works were used against him in court, as evidence of his homosexuality and general lack of morals. Wilde used the philosophy of Aestheticism in his defense, claiming that "No work of art ever puts forth views. Views belong to people who are not artists." While his answers entertained the audience at his trial, they were ultimately not enough to save him. Wilde was found guilty on the charge of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. After being released from prison, he fled to Paris and died in poverty a few years later.
While his story has a sad ending, Oscar Wilde's image will always be one associated with beauty and decadence. What are your thoughts on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement? Let us know in the comments!
Written By: TheGothicLibrarian