Elizabeth Prettejohn is Professor of History of Art at the University of Bristol. Previously, she was Professor of Modern Art at the University of Plymouth and before that she held the post of Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. She has published widely on Victorian painting and sculpture and her research interests include the Pre-Raphaelites, Victorian Aestheticism, Victorian and twentieth-century art criticism, receptions of ancient and Renaissance art and relationships between philosophical aesthetics and art practice. Her most recent book is Beauty and Art, 1750-2000, published by Oxford History of Art, 2005. Current projects include two books, Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting and The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture.
This paper argues that the conventional art-historical periodization, in which Modernism inexorably supersedes Aestheticism, and the year 1900 marks a radical break in the history of art, is seriously flawed: not only historiographically naïve, it is also tinged with misogyny and homophobia. In a long perspective, it clearly makes sense to divide Victorian Aestheticism from twentieth-century Modernism. But in the shorter time frame of the very end of the Victorian period and the first few years of the twentieth century (the end of the `long nineteenth century`), the divide is not one of period. Aestheticism and Modernism overlap at this historical moment, and both of them involve serious exploration of basic problems in aesthetics and art theory. The difference between them is not a matter of chronology; instead it is a question of art-historical valuation, of what will count (in Clive Bell's term) as `significant` in modern art. The paper compares Aestheticist and Modernist paintings to argue that the similarities between them may be as important as the differences, and that this observation may change our evaluations on both sides.