Jocelyn Sanchez, Lia Inadomi, and Ellen Relac
This artifact depicts an illustration of Oscar Wilde on the front cover of a songbook. The songbook features six different dance pieces by different composers and was published in Boston around the time of Oscar Wilde’s American tour. The song “Quite Too Utterly Utter” was composed by Robert Coote. At the songbook’s late 19th century time of publication, sheet music ownership was a status symbol––and the art chosen to decorate a songbook or piece of music was paramount in its sale and distribution. This piece of art in particular draws heavily on the Aesthetic movement, which adopted Wilde as a symbol of sorts alongside its emblematic sunflower, lily, and peacock feather. The cover illustration is based on a photograph taken by Napoleon Sarony during Wilde’s tour of the United States and accented by an array of sunflowers and nothing else. This places a strong emphasis on the Aesthetic motifs of the art and seems to link the songbook on the whole to the Aestheticism movement. We were fascinated to encounter a similar piece of art from Wilde’s adult residence of England in our research.
Another iteration of this piece that is common online is a colorful portrait from the cover of the same songbook (perhaps an earlier, British edition) that is now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This other illustration was done by Albert Concanen and published in England, whereas our artifact is sourced from a Bostonian music publishing company, Oliver Ditson & Co., which was founded in 1861.
The Concanen illustration is dated around 1881, but ours seems to date from 1882. It might be inferred to be an American edition of the British songbook we located at the V&A. Perhaps its publication was consciously timed around Wilde’s 1882 visit to America, during which he toured the United States in association with an opera that actually satirized the English Aestheticism movement.
Wilde has endured as a symbol of flamboyancy and early homosexual activism, and his appearance on this volume of music feels particularly symbolic given the artwork’s Aestheticist symbolism and the significance of the artifact itself as a relic of the upper class. This feels ironic given the consumerist way the capitalist upper class profits from the artists and creators such as Wilde himself while those same artists often fall victim to their own society. Wilde’s ultimate trial, imprisonment, and death seem to exemplify this paradox, as he was unable, despite his creative powers, to protect himself from this fate at the hands of the ruling class to which his prosecutors belonged.
This artwork is conceptually very interesting because of the way it visually wraps realism into Aestheticism. Wilde seemed to embody this marriage in life in the way his literary presence extended so far beyond his personal life but also elevated the goings-on of his private life to fame. He seems to resemble both Jack and Algernon of The Importance of Being Earnest in this sense: his persona was larger and more flexible perhaps than his reality of being truly was. Though his lifestyle was both worldly and British in nature, his Irish heritage has to count for something in the formation of his public persona, and his familial background, including his mother’s activism for Irish independence and his family’s elevated social status, might even be read as influences on the instability of his image. He left these Irish beginnings behind in order to become the British academic and aristocratic hedonist he’s famous for being, but the Dublin locus of his origin is not to be overlooked in a broader examination of the man used here to stand in for the wildness and vivacity of the Aestheticism movement.
Mason, Stuart. Oscar Wilde and The Aesthetic Movement. Haskell House, 1972.
Nelson, E. Charles. “‘Helianthus Annuus’ ‘Oscar Wilde’: Some Notes on Oscar and the Cult[Ivation] of Sunflowers.” The Wildean, no. 43, 2013, pp. 2–25., doi:https://www.jstor.org/stable/45270258.
O’Leary, Joseph S. “Comic Entrances, Tragic Exits: Wilde and Socrates.” Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 34, 2019, pp. 76–89.
“Napoleon Sarony, Oscar Wilde, 1882.” Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame University, sniteartmuseum.nd.edu/collections/recent-acquisitions/roderic-o-conor-effect-of-the-sun-in-a-cloud-effet-de-soleil-dans-un-nuage-1893/.
“Quite Too Utterly Utter: Concanen, Alfred: V&A Explore The Collections.” Victoria and Albert Museum: Explore the Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O81539/quite-too-utterly-utter-songsheet-cover-concanen-alfred/iquite-too-utterly-utteri-songsheet-cover-concanen-alfred/.
Vinson, W. Lee. “Oliver Ditson Company.” The Boston Drum Builders, www.bostondrumbuilders.com/ditson.