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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: September 2012

2 - The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and of Remaking Aestheticism


Wilde: ‘I wish I had said that, Whistler’

Whistler: ‘You will, Oscar, you will’

Widely perceived to be an aesthete-for-hire or, in Max Beerbohm's words, ‘a sandwich board for Patience’, Wilde's purpose in the late 1880s and early 1890s was to shed this image and develop his own aesthetic ideals. One of the ways he did this was quite literally by putting things between boards. During these prolific years, Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Intentions (1891), Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891), and A House of Pomegranates (1891). He lectured on dress, interior decoration and his ‘Personal Impressions of America’; he became a regular contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette; he edited a magazine that he rechristened the Woman's World. As a result, Wilde transformed himself into a real artist and a professional man of letters. He also reinvented Aestheticism in the process, as this chapter reveals. This metamorphosis was due in no small part to his clashes with the painter James McNeill Whistler, as well as with James. Wilde's systematic assimilation and reformulation of their views suggests that plagiarism and appropriation were integral to Aestheticism's evolution.

In the first chapter we saw how, between 1879 and 1884, James's international novels integrated sharp renditions of aesthetic types who rehearsed and rebutted some of Wilde's most salient traits; in doing so, James had created an American prehistory for Aestheticism.