The Aesthetic Movement was one of the most important social movements of the late 19th century, yet most people are not aware of it at all. As far as our Brooklyn neighborhoods are concerned, we see the movement’s influences everywhere, both on the exteriors and interiors of our period homes and buildings.
The Aesthetic Movement, as discussed today, is mostly seen as a decorative or artistic phase of the Victorian era. But it was much more than that. Like many of the social and artistic trends of the time, the movement started in England, and ran roughly from 1870 to 1900.
If the Aesthetic Movement had a theme, it would have to be art for art’s sake. The writers, poets and cultural leaders of the time asserted that one should live surrounded by beauty — in beautiful rooms filled with beautiful things. This was the time when decorative arts rose to symbolize the height of our striving society, and they have remained there ever since.
The Aesthetic Movement was inspired by Japanese art and design.
The greatest influence of the movement occurred when Japan opened up to Western trade in the mid 1800s, fueling a mania in both England and the U.S. for Japanese design, art and goods.
The delicate and asymmetrical art of Japan was a revelation to Western audiences hungry for something different, and the designers of the Aesthetic Movement quickly became fascinated with these new shapes and motifs.
Leaves and flowers, butterflies, birds and other natural themes joined with the rectilinear shapes of Japanese furniture and architecture. Designer Charles Eastlake was heavily influenced by Japanese culture and design — reinterpreting them in his American Eastlake furniture and interior woodwork.
Wallpaper in Japanese patterns was also in vogue, bringing colors and designs not seen before into the home. In furniture, Japanese-style ebonized and lacquered pieces — sometimes gilded — were popular, as were marquetry and painted surfaces. It was an age of amazing, elaborate surfaces.
The Aesthetic Movement was the precursor of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which, in America, was highly influenced by Japan, especially on the West Coast. But where Arts and Crafts valued simple beauty, the late Aesthetic Movement did not — it soon ushered in a robber-baron style of luxurious excess.
The Aesthetic Movement in Brooklyn
At the time, many Brooklynites had more money to spend on the fashions of the day. No well-to-do Brooklynite could escape the Aesthetic Movement’s pervasive influence, and they built and decorated accordingly. The impact of the style’s natural motifs can still be seen in the exterior incised stonework of Neo-Grec Brooklyn brownstones.
Inside Brooklyn homes, the Movement inspired iridescent jewel tones, warm woods, patterned parquet floors, marquetry furniture, Japanese-style patterns on walls and dishes, butterflies, peacocks and ginkgo leaves on many surfaces, and yards of velvet and other rich fabrics.
Inside what looked like relatively conservative row houses was a cacophony of color, texture, materials and merchandise galore. The end of the 19th century — the Gilded Age — was a time of great excess, much of it expressed in the homes of Brooklyn.
Read more about how the Aesthetic Movement shaped Brooklyn’s interiors.
This story has been edited and updated since its initial publication.
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