Oscar Wilde

The below is triggered by The Relation of Dress to Art by Wilde. The essay itself is very brief and can (and should) be read as a response to Whistler’s 10 O’clock lecture. As such, it is worth commencing this brief discussion with a summation of Wilde and Whistler, and their relationship. Both titanesque, arrogant, self-aggrandising figures, Wilde and Whistler were only to keen to publicly carry out debates, arguments, dialogues, and even actual fisticuffs in the case of Whistler. Whilst both men were fiercely intelligent and they shared many similarities, their characters and backgrounds were distinctly different. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, an American, was a somewhat fierier, sturdy character than Wilde, and was described as a moody child prone to fits of temper and insolence; both characteristics were self-evident during his adulthood. Whistler was somewhat ambiguous about his roots, preferring to recast himself as he saw fit, for example declaring himself born in Russia when he was in fact born in Massachusetts. Whistler revised his heritage, and changed his name, he continually made bold statements (about himself, his life, his past) and lived under his own rule but his political opinions remain somewhat ambiguous, possibly even blasé, and his ego, whilst seemingly fragile as a child, was vastly and aggressively enforced upon others.[1] A cavalier and risky attitude prevailed from his first days in training as an artist in Paris, in the 1850s. Whistler was no coward, and he often seemed to enjoy or even seek out personal or public challenges, as perhaps best evidenced by his taking Ruskin to court in 1877. Technically speaking, Whistler won the trial, however, it appears to be a sign of his belligerent stubbornness that he did so at his own cost: bankruptcy.

Edward Linley Sambourne An Appeal to the Law
Edward Linley Sambourne, An Appeal to the Law (1878, Punch)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, on the other hand, was a self-styled dandy and from highly intellectual parents. Wilde’s background was monied with a hint of aristocracy (his parents being titled Sir and Lady Wilde), something Whistler wished he was (feel free to draw parallels between Whistler, and Velazquez here). Wilde he was an exceptional student, winning prizes, fluent in Greek and soon turned his hand to writing plays, editing, poetry etc.Wilde and Whistler both courted the kind of café, salon existence. Both men spent beyond their means, and Wilde frequently complained about his poverty (all relative I guess). Both men frequently spent time in Paris and were friends of a sort, enjoying shared company, overly loud aphorisms and similar ideas on aesthetics. Their sparring was sharp witted but ultimately friendly, e.g.

Wilde: “I wish I had said that”

Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Renowned for his concept of Art’s for Art’s sake, which he relied upon when discussing / defending The Picture of Dorian Gray during his own famous court case, Wilde was very much in agreement with Whistler’s 10 o’clock lecture. Both men felt Art had no function other than Beauty; it should not have conform to the Victorian idea of having a moral or social function. Ironically, although a few points of intellectual disagreement existed, e.g. regarding the hierarchical position of Poetry, Wilde’s written response was a positive one. Whistler viewed this applause as being one of mockery, and from there on, verbal sparring between the pair ensued. The tone was now relentless, bitchy, and often more about ego than content. The pair would frequently tear strips off each other, and their public feud was a gift to Punch, which they featured in regularly.

The Essay

James Abbott McNeill Whistler

The Relation of Dress to Art was published eight days after Whistler gave his lecture. Appearing in The Pall Mall Gazette, it is a short, brief response to Whistler’s 10 o’clock lecture. The link between the two is overt (Wilde mentions Whistler by name) and the text is meant to be understood as being a response. The dialogue can also be evidenced through Wilde’s mirroring use of language, and his reference to passages and ideas within Whistler’s text, e.g. the high priest figure of Rembrandt, and the concept of Art as muse.

Whistler writes ‘Nature is very rarely right’, and similarly Wilde says ‘For the arts are made for life, and not life for the arts’. Both men endorse a sense of amorality, a condition of Art as a sort of existential form, which cannot be tamed and lives for itself, amongst itself, but through those High priest figures it chooses to elect (a somewhat happenstance for those figures who deem themselves ‘chosen’).

So why does Whistler object so much? Is it a fear of competition, or plagiarism? Is it a sense of territory or threat of ownership which Whistler protects? Is a reputation concern? Wilde does refer to him as ‘this poor peripatetic professor of posing’, and he also suggests Whistler is inconsistent to his own dogma. Is it this sense of divergence which Whistler was so riled by? Wilde himself is somewhat inconsistent with his suggestion that ‘the real schools should be the streets’, an odd declaration when Wilde’s writing is mostly concerned with the upper classes. Likewise, is a strange irony that Wilde attacks Whistler for being a ‘venerable impostor’ who ‘is waited for’ by ‘all who recognize him’.[2] His ‘far be it from me to burden a butterfly with the heavy responsibility of its past’ is also a rather stinging comment. Perhaps the fuel for the fire was their ego over shared concepts and ideas, their own realisation that Art was not some free forming muse, but a time driven oriented response which the figures of each Society produced. Perhaps sensing that Whistler and Wilde were not elected high priests, rather they were simply men of their time, inflamed both men.

What is of note, is that the quality of Whistler’s lecture is far superior to Wilde’s text. There are wonderful moments which debate the very substance and origin of art. Whistler considers who and how art and the artist came to be, describing the gourd of prehistoric masters before moving on to discuss the high priest of Rembrandt. Both men try and remain politically detached throughout their writing, inviting no moral and social distinction, merely considering the ‘natural expression of life’s beauty’.[3] Line, delicacy, loveliness, costume are, for Wilde, the key to unlocking a future of ‘exquisite conditions’ where who knows ‘what perfect artist born?’[4]

Wilde finishes his essay with the suggestion that one of those great artists existed, in his day: Whistler, a man who combined ‘the mirth and malice of Puck, with the style of the major prophets’.


Some interesting debunking about Wilde can be found here:

For anything relating to Whistler, seek it here:

All Whistler 10 o’clock quotes are taken from

All Wilde quotes are taken from Wilde, The Decay of Lying and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2003) , a copy of which can be found here: The Relation of Dress to Art


[1] It should be noted that Whistler was very much under the yoke of his mother, when she arrived in London, Whistler wrote how he had to ‘purify it [his house] from cellar to eaves’.

[2] Wilde, The Decay of Lying and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2003) page 304.

[3] Ibid., page 305.

[4] Ibid., page 306.