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Pater’s essays take up a two-sided idea of the Renaissance, both normative and subversive, celebrating canonical artist-heroes even while depicting them engaged in behavior that would have scandalized Victorian society. (For example, many of the male artists he studies, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, are romantically involved with other men.) His recurring strategy is to engage with a well-known author or artist in a way that seems to agree with conventional wisdom, pretending to fit in with accepted judgments while at the same time proposing his own audacious opinions. Most famously, he quotes Matthew Arnold approvingly in his preface to The Renaissance, only to overturn Arnold’s idea in the following clause:

Rachel Teukolsky, “Walter Pater’s Renaissance (1873) …

Walter Pater (Fig. 1) is known as the chief theorist of the Aesthetic movement. His essays laid out the serious and subversive ideas underpinning an art movement whose rebellion was enacted through an embrace of beauty and strangeness. Art historians today are not in the business of proposing to us controversial new ways of living and thinking; yet that is what happened in 1873, when Pater published his collection titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance. He used the art-historical essay as a platform to describe indirectly a lifestyle freed from Victorian conventionalities, especially those surrounding the human body. While many authors before Pater had used art history to meditate more broadly on modern values—most influentially, the art critic John Ruskin, promoting the moral worth of Gothic architecture—Pater puts his own unique spin on the practice. Though Pater has often been assimilated into an apparently normative group of Victorian essay writers that includes Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, this piece will highlight some of his more rebellious tendencies, describing how he critiques and even ironizes the scholarly tradition to which he contributes. His double vision is at once serious and transgressive, using the canon of Renaissance art to offer his own idiosyncratic impressions and to implicitly defend the right of others to experience a similar freedom.


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