Artscape: Oscar Wilde Does Newport

Jul 26, 2018

A young Oscar Wilde came to Newport in 1882, on a U.S. tour promoting "Aestheticism," or art for art’s sake. For this month’s Artscape, we visit Rosecliff Mansion, where an exhibit commemorates that visit. It’s called “Bohemian Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde’s Newport.” 

On July 15, 1882, Oscar Wilde appeared at the Casino Theatre in Newport, to lecture on the decorative arts. According to the handbill anouncing his talk, he would focus particular attention on applying the "Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration." 

Ashley Householder with Oscar Wilde
Credit Chuck Hinman / RIPR

Although he was just 27 at the time, Wilde was already well-known in this country as a proponet of the Aesthetic Movement, an intellectual and artistic movement that emphasized the idea of art for art's sake.

"There was this tenet that if you surrounded yourself with beautiful objects, you would lead a more beautiful life," said Ashley Householder, curator of exhibitions at the Preservation Society of Newport County. 

One of the hallmarks of the Aesthetic Movement was the proliferation of blue and white ceramic pottery, examples of which are on view in the current exhibit. Householder said Wilde was closely associated with that pottery, thanks to a comment he made while he was student in England.

"He said famously at Oxford that he found it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue and white china," recounted Householder.     

The Aesthetic Movement was relatively short-lived as an art movement, said Householder, yet it was important. It began in England in about the 1860s, with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and came to the American populace through the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of poets, painters and thinkers who were the first to experiment with taking the images they were painting on canvas, and translating them to decorative interiors. Householder said their theory of interior decor, "today seems not really earth-shattering, but at the time was a unique, different thing that was happening."

The Rosecliff Exhibition, in the second floor gallery, features a selection of furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and costumes from the movement. One of Householder’s favorite objects is a ceramic teapot, which is actually a joke on the Aesthetic Movement, echoing Wilde’s comment about his blue and white china. 

Satirical Teapot
Credit Art Institute of Chicago / Preservation Society of Newport County

The teapot was designed and produced in 1882, the same year that Wilde was in Newport. It doesn't function as a teapot, and features a female form on one side, wearing a lily, and a male form on the other side, with a sunflower. Householder said those flowers were seen as the perfect representation of the Aesthetic Movement.

"And the joke is that they (the man and woman) have lived up to the tenets of aestheticism so much, they have literally turned into their china," said Householder. "It’s a charming little piece. It’s worth the visit alone. I don’t think I’m overstating it. It really is fabulous."

The Bohemian Beauty exhibit continues at Rosecliff Mansion, through November 4th.