Putting Art in Context

When I discovered the tonalist art movement and decided to study it further, I had no idea what lay ahead. I knew I would enjoy learning about the art and the artists who were part of “tonalism”, but I wasn’t expecting to uncover so many other fascinating, related concepts.

For the most part, I’ve tended to view art from a very personal perspective. What has been most important for me when visiting galleries or exhibitions has been a single question: Do I like what I see or not?

I now feel rather selfish for taking such a simplistic position. While I’ve always allowed that art is subjective and that we’re each entitled to our own opinions, I’m only now coming to realize how valuable it is to have an informed opinion, and not merely make judgments based upon personal preferences.

In short, I’m learning now that if we truly want to understand art — and the artists who have created it — we have to put it into context. We need to understand not merely how these artists worked, but why they chose to work the way they did.

Art does not come from nothing. It springs forth as a form of creative expression, and what artists have to say reflects the time and place in which they live. Art can never be wholly divorced from reality. Throughout history artists have responded to world events, drawing inspiration from the political and social events of their day.

This became very clear to me as I began learning about the school of British Aesthetics. The word aesthetics is perhaps most closely related to philosophy. I don’t think it’s used much outside of that realm. Essentially it means “an appreciation of beauty”. In philosophy, of course, that opens the door to a wide array of questions.

What is beauty?

What is taste?

Are there standards by which beauty can be judged?

How is beauty expressed in art?

Is one work of art more beautiful than another?

The questions go on and on, and truly, we’re still asking these same questions today.  While aesthetics were part of art in the 18th century, the philosopical musings of beauty took on even more importance for artists of the late 19th century.

So, what was the British Aesthetics movement in art? Doreen Bulger Burke and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger describe it in this way:

“… a preoccupation with surface pattern and ornament into all media, thus enriching the design of furniture, wallpaper, carpets, stained glass, ceramics, and metalwork.” From – The Hudson River School in Eclipse

They go on to say that “many artists found new sources of inspiration in decorative work.” This was the era in which “Tiffany’s” — properly known as Tiffany and Company — began to flourish with colorful stained glass lamps and other works. Artists turned their attention to designing and crafting furniture, creating textile patterns for interior use, and constructing homes with elements we’ve come to know as “Victorian.”

But why? What happened? What changed from one generation to the next? What prompted this different attitude toward art and its purpose?

The Industrial Revolution happened.

We’ve all learned about the Industrial Revolution back in our high school days, but I don’t think we fully grasped the significance of the changes it wrought. The Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

The main features involved in the Industrial Revolution were technological, socioeconomic, and cultural. The technological changes included the following:

(1) the use of new basic materials, chiefly iron and steel,

(2) the use of new energy sources, including both fuels and motive power, such as coal, the steam engine, electricity, petroleum, and the internal-combustion engine,

(3) the invention of new machines, such as the spinning jenny and the power loom that permitted increased production with a smaller expenditure of human energy,

(4) a new organization of work known as the factory system, which entailed increased division of labour and specialization of function,

(5) important developments in transportation and communication, including the steam locomotive, steamship, automobile, airplane, telegraph, and radio,

(6) the increasing application of science to industry. These technological changes made possible a tremendously increased use of natural resources and the mass production of manufactured goods.

Taking singly, any of these changes would have an effect on society. Considered as a whole, we can see how truly world-changing these developments were. This was, indeed, a revolution.

While the revolution brought progress, it brought many other things. Dirt. Grime. Crowded cities. Factories. Smoke. Steam. It brought images of sooty faces, industrial accidents, and ugliness.

Is it any wonder that people sought beauty?

There were benefits derived, of course. Historians say that it was because of the industrial revolution that the overall standard of living for the general population began to rise. People found themselves with more money, and often, more time as machines performed previously labor-intensive jobs.

Another result was materialism. Factories could mass produce a vast array of goods. Quality was often poor, and… well, remember all those questions about taste? Were these manufactured objects worthy of owning? If art is produced in massive quantities, is it really art?

In short, the British Aesthetic Movement (approximately 1860 – 1900) was an attempt to escape both the ugliness and the crass materialism that resulted from living in an Industrial Age. The search for beauty was on.

One of the most notable — and most familiar — artist from the period is James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Though born in Massachusetts, he was living in London as the Aesthetics movement began to develop. Among his works from the period are three “symphonies” in white:

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl 1864 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

What I’ve written here is only a brief introduction to the aesthetics movement as it arose first in Britain and then came to influence American artists, as well. The meaning of the movement goes far beyond the basic tenets I’ve outlined. It was a movement filled with eccentric, unconventional characters and fascinating, scandalous stories. There are many resources available online if you’d like to learn more.

Of course, aesthetics is only one of many artistic movements that have developed over time, and whenever we see works of art, we should not simply take it at face value. We’ll appreciate it much more if we take time to dig a little deeper, to consider why a particular style was in vogue, or why certain works were praised while others were rejected,

Quite simply, art doesn’t stand alone really. There’s always a context. Putting it in context has given me a much greater appreciation for all forms of arts and design.






    1. I’m always amazed when I learn more about the time and place surrounding “art movements”. It’s interesting to see how society does shape art. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  1. Interesting. I’ve not studied Whistler, or Tonalism. Looking at these works, my first reaction was that they were Pre-Raphaelite paintings, they certainly reflect Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics. I’m guessing there would have been a degree of influence there, from the Pre-Raphaelite… the somnolent-looking, red-headed models (:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’re right. The art history books I’m reading have mentioned the Pre-Raphaelite artists, but I haven’t read much about them and their aesthetics. I’m finding it interesting to see how various “movements” came about, how they influenced one another, and how they led toward the next art movement. It’s all very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

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