Art

Seeing Through Oscar Wilde’s Dandy Façade

An exhibition in Paris explores the Irish wit’s literary exploits, aesthetic tastes, and friendships with artists.

Napoleon Sarony, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde #15” (1882) (© Library of Congress, Washington)
Napoleon Sarony, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde #15” (1882) (© Library of Congress, Washington)

PARIS — In The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Sir Thomas quips that “when good Americans die they go to Paris.” Oscar Wilde, the Irish novelist, playwright, poet, and Francophile, went to Paris before he died. Well before. But die there he did: in 1900, of cerebral meningitis, at the age of 46, following a death-bed conversion to Catholicism. He passed away in the then-grotty Hôtel d’Alsace on the left bank and reportedly, before doing so, would cheekily tell his visitors, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Wilde explored the rapport between fading and staying extensively in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, wherein Dorian Gray wishes that his beautiful painted portrait could age in his place. His wish is granted and he abandons himself to a life of pleasure, urged on by his evil mentor, the dandy and aesthete Lord Henry Wotton. At the novel’s close, in a gesture that anticipates Lucio Fontana, Dorian stabs the canvas, which by now has become a hideous reflection of his dissolute life.

Napoleon Sarony, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde #22” (1882) (© Library of Congress, Washington)
Napoleon Sarony, “Portrait of Oscar Wilde #22” (1882) (© Library of Congress, Washington)

Wilde himself sought to embody Lord Henry Wotton’s dandy aloofness, which might be seen as the dehumanization inherent in capitalist modes of exploitation. Yet Wilde’s pantomime, his ostentatious dandy manner, is admirable for its droll and caustic intelligence. It is salient to our celebrity-fixated time in that he was one of the first to construct a public persona based on illusion. Wilde did this by poking fun at the notion of the Romantic genius, extolling instead pseudo-inspiration, artificiality, indifference, impassiveness, and an ironic causality that prevents any recognition of true identity.

Wilde had already been a frequent visitor to St Germain des Près, where he met André Gide, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine. He fled England in 1897 following a failed libel case against John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and after serving a two-year prison sentence for “acts of gross indecency with other male persons.” Wilde’s most passionate homoerotic partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry, in one of his poems called their emotional desire “the love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde’s tomb at the Pière Lachaise cemetery, sculpted by Jacob Epstein, is now a place of pilgrimage for hip romantics who used to leave it covered in lipstick kisses and those who see Wilde as an early martyr for gay rights.

Installation view of Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate at Petit Palais (courtesy Petit Palais, © Benoit Fougeirol)
Installation view of Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate at Petit Palais (courtesy Petit Palais, © Benoit Fougeirol)

Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate at the Petit Palais was co-curated by Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson, who lives in Burgundy) and Dominique Morel. Contradicting one of Wilde’s silvered bon mots — “Nothing succeeds like excess” — this somewhat claustrophobic and stodgy show nevertheless provides a seductive education in the Decadent movement, as conveyed through the sensitivities of Wilde’s bifurcated homosexual experience, by copiously displaying manuscripts, photographs, paintings, and personal effects that marked the recalcitrant dandy’s life and work. What I found lacking was an extra inner theme to drive the show above and beyond hagiography, and more Paris-specific material. But I was fortunate enough to tour the exhibition in the company of David Charles Rose, editor of The Oscholars, a research website devoted to Wilde, and author of Oscar Wilde’s Elegant Republic, a book on his time in Paris.

The array of objects brought together by Holland and Morel includes an 1883 portrait painting of Wilde by the US painter Harper Pennington that Wilde hung in his Chelsea flat. Less celebratory is the Marquess of Queensberry’s calling card, on which the Marquess wrote, “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite (sic),” and had it delivered to Wilde’s club. This card was the cause of Wilde’s disastrous libel suit against Queensberry, which in turn led to the anti-gay criminal case against Wilde.

John Douglas, Marquis of Queensberry’s card to Oscar Wilde (via Wikimedia)
John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry’s card to Oscar Wilde (via Wikimedia)

Prior to his legal persecution, Wilde was able to embody aesthete dandyism in his character through his effortless, cold wit, his nonchalance, and the originality of his posture, hairstyle, and clothing, all of which helped him project an air of superiority. This is documented in 13 sepia photo-portraits taken by Napoleon Sarony during Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States, during which he lectured (among others) to Mormons in Salt Lake City, Native Americans in Sioux City, and miners in Leadville, Colorado, discussing the luxury of the senses, beauty, and the decorative arts. Wilde’s lectures drew on the ideas of Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and William Morris. Sarony’s photos of Wilde in silk stockings, knee-breeches, velvet jacket, and fur coat are the definitive image of him as aesthete dandy (a look he did not maintain throughout his life).

John Douglas, Marquis of Queensberry’s card to Oscar Wilde (via Wikimedia)
Aubrey Beardsley, “J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, The Studio, n°1, avril” (1893), collection Merlin Holland (via Wikimedia)

Wilde insisted, with typical mocking Irish wit, on the whim and arbitrariness of one’s choices, maintaining that “all art is quite useless.” Yet his dandyism served a double purpose of making him into an original image — all the better to surprise those who met him or saw him speak — and ensuring the prideful satisfaction of never being surprised himself. This cool dandy ideal originates with fashion diva Beau Brummell (the man who first promoted perfectly tailored suits) who was turned into a literary character by Jules Barbey d’Aurévilly, Honoré de Balzac, and Charles Baudelaire. I learned from Rose, however, that Wilde was a bit of a faux dandy. If dandyism is to be described by the invention of one’s character, if its defining characteristic is to make of one’s person a work of art while extolling laziness and displaying a contempt for work, Wilde projected classic dandy superiority, impassivity, elegance, and inscrutability. Yet even as he projected an impersonal contempt for work, much is evidenced in his meticulously worked and reworked manuscript of The Importance of Being Earnest (a satire of the manners of Victorian high society that revolves around two dandies in love with Gwendolen and Cecily, each of whom in turn is determined to marry an elusive man named Ernest). Wilde’s nonchalant posturing contradicts his rigorous work. As such, it seems to me that Wilde created an œuvre while at the same time distancing himself from it.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, "Love and the Maiden" (1877), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, European Art Trust Fund, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund, and Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund (© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Museum)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, “Love and the Maiden” (1877), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, museum purchase, European Art Trust Fund, Grover A. Magnin Bequest Fund, and Dorothy Spreckels Munn Bequest Fund (© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Museum)
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket” (1874), Detroit Institute of Arts (via Wikimedia)

In his early years as an art critic championing the Pre-Raphaelites, Wilde wildly proclaimed himself leader of the “art for art’s sake” movement. That group included James McNeill Whistler, Wilde’s closest artist friend, with whom he often argued (like Ruskin, Wilde was harshly critical of Whistler’s Nocturnes); the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and Aubrey Beardsley, who famously illustrated Wilde’s Salomé. Publisher John Lane commissioned Beardsley, then barely 21 years old, to do so in the late-Art Nouveau, décadent style that evoked the smoke curling from the opium-tipped cigarettes that Wilde adored (with champagne). I was surprised to learn from Rose that Wilde hated Beardsley’s elegant and groovy illustrations.

Steeped in the works of Gustave Flaubert and Joris-Karl Huysmans’s brilliant decadent book À rebours (“Against Nature”), Wilde wrote Salomé (in French) in Paris between November and December 1891. Salomé was the Jewish princess whose charms forced her stepfather, the tetrarch Herod Antipas, to give her the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Wilde hoped to see Sarah Bernhardt play the leading role in London, but the play was banned and was never performed in England during its author’s lifetime. Even though some of Beardsley’s drawings were rejected by Lane on the grounds of indecency, a portfolio of 17 plates loosely based on the highlights of Wilde’s play was published in 1907; they are all on view and very impressive. Other gratifying artworks here include Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s massive yet wispy painting “La danse mauresque, Les Almées” (1895), Guido Reni’s erotic “Saint Sebastien” (c. 1616), John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s romantic “Love and the Maiden” (1877), and Evelyn Pickering’s appealing symbolist “Night and Sleep” (1878). The cumulative effect of bringing these works together, intended to transmit something of the artistic milieu Wilde floated through, is rather like being surrounded by seedy orchids, smothering in their dense perfume.

Evelyn Pickering (De Morgan), "Night and Sleep" (1878) (© De Morgan Foundation)
Evelyn Pickering (De Morgan), “Night and Sleep” (1878) (© De Morgan Foundation)

The art critical Wilde eye was sternly apolitical and formally uneven, as evidenced as early as 1877, when Wilde published a review of the opening exhibition at the new Grosvenor Gallery in London. The space was founded to promote the artists of the Aesthetic movement and their opposition to the conservatism of the Royal Academy. In his review, Wilde singled out Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood members William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones, as well as the rather mediocre George Frederic Watts, for praise. But in general Wilde, as the era’s star art critic, did not seek to please. As the diva dandy arbiter of elegance par excellence, Wilde was surely one of the cheekiest, most intelligent, and (for many) most annoying men of his time. He could be a capricious and despotic critic, whose judgments were beyond appeal and often feared. He indulged in the youthful aristocratic pleasure of not being liked and his wit was purposefully caustic, his tongue often blistering.

Perhaps justly then, I found that I did not visually like this swank showcase of Wilde’s wonderful and wayward ways, even as it was rather interesting. It reminded me that perfumed fops and elegant dandies, like Wilde, are indispensable to the productive flurry of artistic coteries.

Installation view of Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate at Petit Palais (courtesy Petit Palais, © Benoit Fougeirol)
Installation view of Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate at Petit Palais (courtesy Petit Palais, © Benoit Fougeirol)

Oscar Wilde: Insolence Incarnate continues at the Petit Palais (Avenue Winston Churchill, 8th arrondissement, Paris, France) through January 15.

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