The Aesthetic art movement thrived in Britain and America during the 1860s to the 1880s. The movement started in a small way in the studios and houses of a radical group of artists and designers, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In works of art the leading British exponents of this aesthetic movement were J.M.Whistler, Frederic, Lord Leighton and Albert Joseph Moore. This style of art was also known as Art for Art’s Sake. The Oxford Dictionary defines Aestheticism as:
“… the term applied to exaggerated expression of the doctrine that art is self-sufficient and needs serve no ulterior purpose, whether moral, political or religious…”
It was influenced by Japanese art and culture. It was not universally loved and the art critic Walter Hamilton wrote a book in 1862, The Aesthetic Movement in England, in which he mounted a famous defence of the Aesthetic Movement and wrote about the key figures associated with the movement and provided descriptions of contemporary responses to it.
Albert Moore was one of the principal originators of the Aesthetic Art Movement, and was considered by Whistler as one of the most original artists of his generation. His decorative paintings, which were true to the Aesthetic movement, championed pure beauty in their depiction but lacked messages whether overt or subtle, and this type of art became very popular with collectors. His depiction of women, in what is termed a Hellenic style, draped in their diaphanous clothing, was one which will always be linked with Moore. Following the success he had with his work entitled The Marble Seat, he followed it up with a series of purely decorative paintings. In all of these, the allure of the works was Moore’s depiction of the female form and the harmonious use of colour.
One of Albert Moore’s patrons, around this time, was James Leathart, a Newcastle lead manufacturer. He had visited Moore at his studio in 1865 and whilst there saw an unfinished work by the artist entitled A Musician. The work combines aspects of ancient Roman wall paintings, Greek sculpture and Japanese prints. The figures in the painting are separated. On the left side we have an active male musician playing the lyre and on the right we see his audience of two passive females. This separation by gender was also present in his painting, The Marble Seat (see previous blog).
Leathart bought this work from Moore and It can now be seen at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven. In 1867 he purchased from Moore his work Elijah’s Sacrifice.
Leathart was so pleased with his acquisitions that he commissioned Moore to produce a pair of classically draped figures, each bearing a shuttlecock and racket. The two commissioned paintings were to feature two ancient games played by both men and women. It was the precursor to jeu de volant, which was itself the precursor to badminton. The simple titles to his paintings were Battledore and Shuttlecock.
In a letter to Leathart in November 1868, Moore wrote:
“…now fairly at work on your two pictures and propose to go on with them continuously until they are finished…”
Leathart went to Moore’s studios to see what progress Moore had made and viewed the preparatory sketch. However Moore had a change of heart with regards the colours and tones he would use and in February 1869 he again wrote to Leathart to tell him that he had:
“…hit upon combinations of colour darker in character than the little sketch you saw some time ago…”
Now, Moore had a dilemma. He wanted to press ahead with the final paintings but had to be sure that Leathart agreed to his proposed changes to the colours and in his letter to Leathart, he gave his reasons for the change but to avoid problems with his patron hinted that Leathart had the final say. Moore wrote:
“… I think it is best to learn your views on the subject. That is to say, if you have any particular desire that the pictures should be kept light in character – as for instance, for the sake of their effect in your room – I shall of course be ready to recur to something like the original scheme: at the same time I have reason to believe that the latter combination would succeed – having tried them in small sketches and I may say I should not hesitate to carry them out, were I the only person concerned…”
Leathart agreed to the changes.
Moore was fascinated by colour combinations and how some worked better than others. Whilst studying at the School of Design in York he had studied this very issue and was inspired by Michel Eugène Chevreul who had published a book in 1855 entitled The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colour. Chevreul based his ideas on the study of the coloured threads in the Gobelin tapestries.
In his work, Shuttlecock , Moore brought together the colours of orange and blue which Chevreul had written were “harmonies of contrasts”. Although chromatically opposites, orange and blue combined to produce grey. Look at the colour combinations on the mat which the female stands upon. When the two paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1871 Moore was praised for his depiction of the figures but those who detected Moore’s scientific approach to colour combinations were less happy. Other critics were unhappy with the fact that there was no message within the painting, no historical or biblical connotation to the depiction
Along with Battledore and Shuttlecock Moore had a third painting accepted for the 1871 Royal Academy Exhibition. The title of this third work was Sea-gulls. This painting eventually came to fruition but not without some controversy. Moore’s friend James Whistler got to hear of, and later saw the preliminary sketches for this painting through their mutual friend and patron Frederic Leyland and Whistler was concerned that they were very similar to preliminary sketches he had made for his own painting. After lots of discussions between the two artists and an intermediary, William Nesfield, an architect and amateur painter, and a friend of both Whistler and Moore, it was amicably decided that Moore exhibiting his Sea-gulls painting would not have an adverse effect on Whistler’s works. The painting was exhibited at the RA even though, according to Moore, it was unfinished. On receiving the work back from the exhibition, Moore completed the work and it was sold to his patron, Frederic Leyland.
There are so many beautiful paintings done by Albert Moore that it is difficult to select a only a few for the blog. However, the next painting by Albert Moore which I am featuring took almost six years to complete and it is a veritable beauty. Moore started this large work (132 x 229 cms) in 1884 but did not complete it until 1890. It was entitled A Summer Night.
The backdrop for this work was not Moore’s usual wall but a fascinating and beautiful display of floral garlands, all intertwined together. In the far background, across the sea, we see the twinkling of shore lights of an island which has been lit up by moonlight. Pale clouds can be seen in the dark sky. In the upper left foreground, we can see orange-coloured ranunculus blooms weaved into the upper part of the silver filigree which is part of the open trellis-work. The painting received a rapturous reception from the public when it was exhibited at the 1890 Royal Academy exhibition, despite the RA’s Hanging team banishing the work, high up on a wall in the fifth room, close by a door.
The fact that Moore’s work was often looked down upon by the art institution for his constant scientific manipulation of colours and for producing paintings without any hidden meanings was not lost on the forward-thinking art critic of the time, Claude Phillips, who had, for a long time been a great supporter of Moore. In an article in the Academy in May 1890, he wrote:
“…no artist of purely British origins has the same mastery over the keyboard of tints and tones as this master of decoration and that such a painter should persistently be excluded from the ranks of the Academicians while that august body contains so many crude, perfunctory and unspeakably tiresome practitioners, is a riddle the solution of which had, perhaps, better not be attempted…”
The art critic George Moore (no relation to Albert Moore) castigated the Royal Academy for not electing to the Academy, either Albert Moore or his friend James Whistler. In 1893, he caustically wrote:
“… Many Academicians will freely acknowledge that his [Albert Moore] non-election is a very grave scandal; they will tell you that they have done everything to get him elected and have given up the task in despair……………..the two greatest artists living in England, will never be elected Academicians; and artistic England is asked to acquiesce in this grave scandal…”
The last painting I am showing you was the last painting Albert Moore completed. It was entitled The Loves of the Winds and the Seasons, which he completed in 1893. Moore’s financial situation at the start of the 1890’s was dire and to make things worse is health was starting to decline. In August 1892 Moore had been taken seriously ill and despite a number of operations he was made to suffer from a painful and incurable illness. Moore would not let his pain or his advancing death stop him from painting and this last painting which he started in 1890, was completed nine days before his death. The painting depicts the courtship of the four male winds with the four female seasons. The female figure on the left is Summer and she watches the courtship of the South Wind and Autumn. In the right background of the painting we see the North and East Winds quarrelling over Winter whilst they are all stood in a patch of snow.
Albert Joseph Moore died at 3am in his London studio in Spenser Street, Westminster on September 25th 1893, three weeks after his fifty-second birthday. The cause of death was given as a sarcoma of the thigh and a recurrent sarcoma of the abdomen. He made his brother Henry sole heir to his estate which amounted to just £1,184. He was buried in the family grave in Highgate Cemetery, which was already occupied by his mother and his brother, John Collingwood Moore.
Most of the information I have used in this and the next blog have come from two books, biographies of Albert Joseoph Moore. They are:
Albert Moore, his life and works, by Alfred Lys Baldry (1894)
Albert Moore by Robin Asleson (published by Phaidon)