Posted by: Kay Heffernan | November 29, 2014

Wilde and the Disease of the Aesthete

Although some of us, myself included, have not read the works of Oscar Wilde before, I would guess that many of us are familiar with Wilde’s (in)famous persona. Although he accomplished much as a poet in college, Wilde became most famous for his “art for art’s sake” mantra after he traveled to the States in December 1881, giving lectures on his thoughts about art, the role of the artist, and aestheticism. These lectures crystallized Wilde as the face of not only the aesthetic movement, but also the antagonizer of normative masculinity.

Much to the chagrin of art and cultural critics in both America and Britain, Oscar Wilde paraded his ostentatious dress, his velvet jacket and signature carnation in its breast pocket, both green. In her article “Fighting Infection: Aestheticism, Degeneration, and the Regulation of Artistic Masculinity,” Sarah Burns discusses the pathologizing of physical appearance and dress, focusing most on the case of Wilde. Linked to the art movement Wilde emblematized, social and moral “decay” could be seen in Wilde’s bohemian aesthetic. The colors green and yellow, for example, were thought to be indicators of weakness, disease, and infection. By extension, Wilde and all he stood for posed an insidious threat to, in Burns’ view, normative masculine behavior and dress. Burns turns to cartoons of the time that either depicted or drew on/alluded to Wilde’s persona, illustrating the dichotomizing of “heathlful” and “diseased” masculinities.

Most of the cartoons Burns cites were drawn by Georges du Maurier, a French illustrator and novelist. Du Maurier produced a series of cartoons that satirized other figureheads of aestheticism, including Charles Baudelaire and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, entitled “A Legend of Camelot,” in 1866. Du Maurier continued this successful mocking theme in later comics. These comics, such as An Infelicitous Question (1897) and Nincompoopiana (1879), depicted the “aesthete in society” as well as confrontations between the effeminate and the strapping or “manly” man. Du Maurier found inspiration in Wilde, as similarities in dress and posture in depictions of the aesthete and in photographs and descriptions of the writer are undeniable.

"An Infelicitous Question." George du Maurier, 1897.

“An Infelicitous Question.” George du Maurier, 1897.

"Nincompoopania." George du Maurier, 1879.

“Nincompoopania.” George du Maurier, 1879.

For comparison, here’s a photograph of Wilde.


Looking at these cartoons, it’s easy to tell which characters are based on Wilde (and James McNeill Whistler, an American artist who created the slogan for the aesthetic movement, “art for art’s sake”). In Nincompoopania, the Wilde-figures are slouched and sprawled like Wilde in the above photograph. All the men in the parlor take this same position. Rather than sitting or standing upright with strong muscles, the men droop – aestheticism has weakened their muscles.

Two women must choose between the strapping gentleman on their left and the aesthete on the right in An Infelicitous Question. Here, du Maurier depicts questions of “proper’ gender performativities of men and women. Burns writes about the outrage cultural critics felt at Wilde, for not only promulgating alternative forms of masculinity, but also providing for women a prominent feminine figure in society. As women flocked to Wilde, critics – mostly men – foresaw a prioritizing of women’s values and rights (e.g., suffrage). This cartoon illustrates the moment of decision for women: to side with Wilde’s sickening subversion or dominant/normative and “healthful” ideas of gender.

This notion of insidious or infectious masculinity became so terrible and widespread that du Maurier and other cartoonists began characterizing Wilde as fungus and sunflowers. Interesting to consider the use of a specific plant in relation to nationalism/national identity. Both comics are of American origin.

“American Wilde.” Anonymous, 1882.

“The Modern Messiah.” George F. Keller, 1881.

The mixed symbolism of the sunflower in these two cartoons exemplifies the mixing of slanderous labels in the Victorian age. Metaphors and language of the body, disease, art, and masculinity culminate in criticism and cartoons. As Burns concludes, this mixing contributed to a dangerous tension surrounding the artistic body and, more broadly, the male body, which began in the nineteenth century and continues today. Wilde’s ostentatiousness and flamboyance is, after all, how we remember him – aside from his art, that is.

Works Consulted:

“Fighting Infection: Aestheticism, Degeneration, and the Regulation of Artistic Masculinity,” Sarah Burns. from Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America. 1996. Print.

“George du Maurier, Illustration and Novelist.” from The Victorian Web.

Oscar Wilde biography, from the Official Oscar Wilde website.

“Part 5: Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces – American Wildes.” from NYU.

Images cited above.


  1. For a higher-res image of “The Modern Messiah” cartoon see:

    John Cooper
    Oscar Wilde In America

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