In 1882 a 27-year old Oscar Wilde embarked on an 11-month tour of North America “to teach U.S. citizens the value of a good tea service and a well-hung picture in the family foyer.” He was sent to America to embody “fleshly poet” Reginald Bunthorne from the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera “Patience.” Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte organized the visit to promote the play which was about to make its American debut. Instead, Wilde commenced playing himself. Upon disembarking at New York harbor, he purportedly told customs officials he had “nothing to declare except his genius.”
At the time of his tour Wilde was a proponent of the Aesthetic Movement in Britain (1870-90) but it would be another eight years before he published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray and even longer before he produced a series of “devastatingly witty plays” that culminated in his most enduring artistic achievement in 1895, "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Bohemian Beauty explores the message of aestheticism that Wilde brought to the New England seaside town. He was invited by Rhode Island native Julia Ward Howe to speak at the Newport Casino on July 15, 1882 to lecture on “The practical application of the principles of the aesthetic theory to exterior and interior house decoration with observations upon dress and personal ornaments."
Howe’s brother “Uncle Sam” Ward was, at the time of Wilde’s arrival in New York City, the most successful “social lobbyist” in Washington, DC and had just moved back to New York, the city of his birth. During his 20-year lobbying career he was renowned for putting on the best dinners in DC. Wilde gained access to Ward’s table—and thus auspiciously met Julia—through a letter of introduction from their mutual friend Lord Houghton, Richard Monckton Milnes, he himself a fixture of London society. Wilde had, in fact, asked for the introduction to Ward.
Oscar Wilde invitation, paper, 1882, The Collections of the Newport Historical Society, [MS.2012.3]
All told, Wilde gave 140 lectures in 260 days at a time when the country was still recovering from the Civil War. His fame (and notoriety) preceded him and he became somewhat of a prize for high society hosts and hostesses. His ‘coming out party’ in American society was in New York City the afternoon of January 5 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Augustus Hayes Jr. The mayor attended as did many railroad barons.
Wilde helped to alter the way people understood and accepted traditional concepts of masculinity. In his lectures, he did not to talk down to audiences but rather engaged them in casual conversation as if between friends and advised that one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art. He drew a comparison to the tour Charles Dickens made a generation earlier and was his own best promoter largely through newspaper interviews and described the Aesthetic Movement as “the science of the beautiful.” Wilde’s image appeared everywhere: newspapers, magazines, advertising columns, sheet music, theater posters, billboards, storefronts, trading cards.
Upon his return to England he declared “the Oscar of The First Period is dead.” Wilde said of himself that he threw away his knee britches, cut his long hair and put down his trademark sunflower. He no longer needed such props to gain attention.
Bohemian Beauty Overview
The Aesthetic Movement