The following article, reprinted here with minimal edits, was originally published in the Leadville Daily Herald on Friday, April 14, 1882.
He Falls an Unwilling Victim to Light Air Upon His Arrival Here.
The Much-Talked-of Disciple of Aesthetics Comes and Goes
Without Any Fuss.
A Whole House Full of Curiosity Seekers at the Tabor Last
Last evening’s South Park train brought Oscar Wilde to Leadville, and as soon as his arrival at the Clarendon became known the lobby filled up with a crowd of men anxious to have a look at the famous aesthete whose name has been heralded all over the country. All were doomed to disappointment, however, for Oscar left his carriage and was shown to his apartments by the ladies’ entrance to the hotel. Immediately he sent for a physician, for his breath was short and his weariness increased with every exertion to breathe. When the man of medicine heard the complaints he at once decided that it was a case of light air and prescribed accordingly. A HERALD representative then sent in his card and was soon ushered into the presence of the redoubtable Oscar.
As the quill-driver entered, Mr. Wilde arose from the bed on which he had thrown himself in utter exhaustion. After extending a cordial reception to the scribe, he excused himself and again sought repose on the couch. While giving him a chance to catch his breath the visitor took an inventory of the man who is setting the American people wild, and what was seen in a glance or two was an individual some six feet tall, with long hair reaching to the shoulders, a languid, far-away look in the eyes, and a mouth that vied with Soldeno’s for size. His attire was that of any ordinary traveling man, and was by no means peculiar. He stated that he was extremely tired and had passed a most wearisome day. After a week in Kansas he goes to Canada, New England and New York, where he will lecture for the second time and return to the old world about the first of June. His style of speaking is such that, not to see the speaker but simply hear the languishing words uttered one might suppose that they emanated from some “lah-de-dah” whose whole being depended upon seeing how much of his portion he could squander frivolously. This is not characteristic of the man, however, for he says he is ambitious and really when he is fired by his love of art he does exercise some symptoms of genuine manhood.
This is his first visit to America, and he remarks very evenly of the culture of some parts and the lack of civilization in other sections. Mr. Wilde is an Irishman by birth, but bears more the imprint of his foster country, England, than of his native Emerald Isle. He still cherishes kindly feelings for the latter, it would seem, for he said, “In coming up to-day I went out on the engine and found an Irishman was the engine driver and we had a good old talk. I saw blue birds, and, oh, they were so beautiful, almost as beautiful as kingfishers.”
In speaking of his love for the beautiful, he remarked, “I long to go back to sunny Italy, there to lie in my gondola, smoke cigarettes and write poems.” When the subject of art was mentioned, Mr. Wilde became almost rapturous and said he loved to tell the people of the beautiful things in life and nature. “I love to travel and meet the best of men and look at the best and most beautiful of women so that when I die I will leave behind me a name that will be handed down to posterity as a lover of the beautiful.” He recommended more beautiful art in America and sighed for the lack of it.
Oscar Wilde must have appreciated most peculiarly the lack of art, as he calls it, in the Leadville people, for instead of receiving a grand ovation at the depot or hotel, his agent quietly escorted him to a carriage and he was driven, like any other arrival, to the Clarendon. This exercise of common sense may be what Mr. Wilde calls “a lack of art.” The few who were curious had to remain so, for they didn’t catch a glimpse of the stranger, as he did not pass through the hotel.
AT THE TABOR.
As usual in the western country, Oscar was late in putting in an appearance, and rather took the audience by surprise. The stage was laid in a balcony scene and prettily adorned with bric-a-brac. The much-talked-of sunflower and lily were absent, hence the audience were slightly disappointed. Without introduction the lecturer stumbled onto the stage with a stride more becoming a giant backwoodsman than an aesthete. He wore a suit of very elegant dark velvet, which includes a cut-away coat, cut in circular form, knee-breeches, low shoes and black stockings. At his neck was a Byron collar and a flossy white neck-handkerchief, while from his snow-white shirt-front glittered a single cluster of diamonds. His hair was very straight and very long, falling in a dark brown mass over his shoulders and parted directly at the equator.
Without much of an introduction he proceeded at once to business, pitching his voice at about middle C and inflecting only when tired nature asserted itself and compelled a rising inflection by a long drawn breath. There was not a comma or period in the whole hour, save when he came to a stop to take an aesthetic drink, which is as ugly as the late lamented “camel’s stride” which some of the would-be leaders of ladies’ fashions tried to adopt early this spring, but finding “a lack of art” gave up in disgust. The aesthete then said:
“In every nation and in every year there is produced a certain amount of artistic taste and artistic talent. Many people live as if there was no art or beauty in life. But this art and beauty in life is no accident. It is this beauty of decoration which we call art. Is it a thing for all. Art is to the workman the value he places on his work. What we are suffering from in this age is work badly done. How shall we reform this? By giving the people noble and beautiful designs to work on you will have found better work. The real power to create work lies with the artisans, the people that work for you and make things for you. The great trouble in America is you give your work over to more machines. Until you change this you will find little true art.
“The basis of our work in England is that we have brought together the handicraftsman and the artist. Think not that these can be isolated! They must work together. The School of Sculpture in Athens and the School of Painting in Venice kept the work of these countries at the head of the world.
“All the arts are fine arts. There is no art that is not open to the honor of decoration and the rules of beauty. You must seek out your decorative workman, your handicraftsman, and you must give him the right surroundings. The [statelievers of] architecture and the beauty of men and women on the street will inspire the workman and artist. All the teachings in the world will be of no avail unless you surround him with those things which will please and delight him. Think of those things which inspired the artist at that Gothic school of Pisa. The artist saw brilliantly lighted palaces, arches and pillars of marble and porphyry. He saw noble knights and glorious mantles flowing over their mill riding along in the sunlight. He saw groves of oranges and pomegranates, and through these groves he saw the most beautiful women that the world has ever known. Pure as lilies, faithful, noble, intellectual. Over all ever present, ever near, and untroubled and sacred heaven which in those days of unquestioned faith was literally peopled with spirits. That was a school where the workman passing in his labor saw much wonderful things about him that he had them wrought in his mind as eternal principles never to be forgotten, and there is much I think in beauty and nobility of dress. Without a beautiful national life all the arts must die. People must dress, not in dull, sombre, unbeautiful costumes. When I speak of Italy I do not ask you to bring back the thirteenth century. The art we require is an art founded on all the inventions and improvements of the nineteenth century. We do not undervalue machinery. There is no opposition to beauty except ugliness. When you find anything ugly, it was made by a bad workman.
“Do not mistake the mere machinery of civilization for civilization itself. Civilization will depend on the noble uses we are willing to put its materials to. These things are merely noble if we use them nobly.
“You must search out your workman. Give him the right surroundings. And don’t put your designer in the colorless and barren atmosphere and ask him to produce beautiful things. You must have before him the best decorative work of Europe and America. Work with the artist with the same reverence, the same appreciation, the same love. There is not one of us that could not live with perfect contentment in a neat, plain room, with sunlight and books. No art is much better than bad art. Instead of feeling that art is indeed a science, we are apt to fly off to glaring colors, horrible to look upon. And you should have a museum, not of stuffed monkeys and giraffes, but you should bring together all the wonders of art in weaving, in painting, in pottery, in architecture and the metals. In London one of our strong-holds of strength is the South Kensington museum. You go there Sundays and you see the workmen going round and examining every ornament, every specimen of beauty that men of past ages have wrought.
“Color without tone is like music without harmony, mere discord. Perfect art should be like perfect music, every tone answering to another, as every chord answers to another in music. The most beautiful windows in England are always filled with the most gorgeous eastern embroideries. A Japanese artist will always impress you with having put on just the right colors and designs when painting even a small fan or a bit of lacquer work.
“One of the most absurd things I ever saw was the young ladies painting moonlights on a bureau and sunlights on dinner plates. Some consideration of the use to which the article is to be put should enter into the mind of the artist. It is well enough to have moonlights and sunlights, but we are not particularly pleased to dine off them. The imaginative artists will take a plain piece of paper or strip of canvass and convert it into something else, whereas the decorator does not wish to cover up the article or change its purpose, but merely to add to its beauty. These things and many others are what your schools of art should teach your young women. I do not think there was ever a real national school of art. Don’t mind what schools of art in Europe are doing, but have an art of your own. Young civilizations should have the best art because youth should be more joyous, and joy should have the purest ideas of beauty. Art requires a strong personal power in the individual, and has not usually flourished among the weak and feeble. All the great schools of art have been under republics. The art of Athens and Venice was natural and healthy. If you want to know what the folly of a monarch will inflict upon a nation in the shape of art, look at France with the monstrous dragons and other horrible conceptions of design in the age of Louis XIV. We have lost the art from our life by the horrible character of our architecture.
“If an ancient sculptor should ask me where he could find models for his art, I would show him men at the docks unloading some beautiful ship.
“Wherever in your fields you find men driving cattle or women drawing water there you will find models of beauty. Gods and goddesses, kings and queens, were carved and painted by Greeks and Romans. But I think that in America you do not care much for gods and goddesses, and still less for kings and queens. What you have daily before you, what you love most dearly and believe in the most fondly that is where your art lies. All around you lie the conditions of art. No country can compare with America for resources of usefulness and beauty. If you build in marble, you must remember that it is a precious stone. A man has no right to build in marble unless he will use it nobly. One should either carve it in joyous decorations, or decorate it in colors or tints of real beauty, or else we should inlay it in the way that the people of Pisa did their palaces; otherwise we had better build in red brick, which is not without some beauty. Then there is no reason why you should not build in wood. I think, however, you paint your houses in the most horrible colors here in America. In no single house from New York to San Francisco did I see a single piece of wood carving that was worth the name. In Switzerland the little barefoot boy will produce carving that will make his father’s house wonderfully beautiful. I know nothing more ugly than modern jewelry. I don’t see why anybody wears it. I think people do not sufficiently remember that the time may come when the simple work of the handicraftsmen will be all to tell our history. Gold has always been a rare thing in Europe, but for you gold is given in exhaustless measure. Gold is not given us, I think, for mere speculation. Don’t leave your workman in gold in the background. Go to him and tell him what you like best in decoration and watch him as he draws it out in those magic threads of sunlight that are called gold-wire. In this way you will encourage your workmen. I would wish to see you have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or think to be beautiful. Whatever art we are to have in the future must be democratic art. I do not mean by this that it must be rough. Art must no longer be the luxury of the rich or the amusement of the idle. It must enter into the every-day life of the hard-working masses of the people. This is the reason that we in England put so much stress on decorative art.
“You may ask whether art will do anything more than make our life beautiful for us. But art will do more than this. We in England wish our children to grow up to love the beautiful and good, and hate what is evil and ugly. Plato expressed this thought ages ago. The beauty of form and color even in the meanest vessels of the house we live in will teach the boy to look into the divine harmony of material life which lies all around us. One of the great faults of modern education is that it attempts to make all culture literary. It has been so much so that we perhaps have been lead sometimes to hate books and reading. Instead of teaching a boy that long list of battles of French and English kings that we have learned to call history, if we were to teach him more to use his hands in some of these beautiful and useful arts, we would thus teach him morality, for the lies of a bad workman cannot be covered; the retribution is immediate, and what people call fine arts is founded on perfect truth, perfect honesty, and perfect simplicity. We will teach him again to love nature more. When we can teach the boy that no blade of grass and no flower is without beauty, then we shall have achieved much. All art is [prairie] of God. The carving of a great Gothic cathedral always seemed to me to be a hymn in God’s honor.
“It seemed fitting to Him in earlier ages that He filled the house of His sanctuary with angels of gold and with pillars of purple and crimson. Industry without art is barbarism.
“I cannot give you a better definition of our principle of art-culture than an extract of Keats’ letter to a friend, in which he says: ‘I have not the slightest reverence for the British public, nor for anything else than the Supreme Being, the lives of great men, and the principle of beauty.’
“Let it be for you to create an art by the hands of the people that will please the world. There is nothing in the world around you that art cannot ennoble. There is not an animal, not a bird, not a plant, that cannot be of use to the faithful artist. As there is nothing in life, there is nothing in mere lifelessness that will not be of use to you. There is not a bit of broken rope, not a basket of wicker work that will not give you ideas of design.
“When you have among you young artists, don’t leave them in obscurity and dishonor.
“The world has practiced so much injustice that it has learned to undervalue applause. Give words of encouragement to the artist.
“The voices that live in your mountains have not alone messages of freedom; they speak another language, which the artist must catch and foster in forms of beauty that will never die.”