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Dandyism in Art History

Simran Singh is a student at Griffith University studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and art history.

Charles Baudelaire’s writings on Dandyism are artistic expressions pursuing beauty and pleasure. Dandyism opposed bourgeois values, appearance, and mannerisms which corresponded to the Epicurean pursuit of happiness to an extent. Oscar Wilde in Number 26 embodied Baudelaire’s idea of the dandy’s gender expression through personal style and facial expression.


On the other hand, traditional stereotypes of the dandy were challenged by Dandy Queens through women adopting masculine gender expressions. Prince retained the traditional essence of the dandy through cosmetics while mixing femininity and masculinity. The ridicule of the dandy lifestyle present in Lacing a Dandy highlighted the opposition it posed to Epicurus’ desire for tranquility.


Ultimately, Epicurus and Baudelaire presented two philosophies in pursuing a beautiful life which was reflected and contrasted within Number 26, Dandy Queens, Prince and Lacing a Dandy.

Baudelaire’s dandy were men who devote their lives to beauty and pleasure while shocking society with androgynous gender expression (Black 1988-1989, pp. 186-188). Dandies satirised bourgeois morality and vulgarity through appearance, language, and mannerisms (Guan 2018, p. 24). Dandies cared for form, happiness, satisfaction, and appearance which correlated with Epicurus’ quest for happiness (Guan 2018, p. 31).


The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus claimed a good life embraced pleasure, avoided pain, and to not fear death (Bergsma; Liefbroer; Poot 2008 p. 397). He believed this path led to tranquility, decreased frustration, and embraced eudaimonia (Voorhoeve 2018, pp. 1-12). This aligned with the dandy’s goal to avoid pain and service to society in pursuit of beauty and pleasure.

Figure 1: Napoleon Sarony, Number 26, 1882-1883, photograph, size 454x759 cm. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas. https://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/sarony/sarony-photographs-of-oscar-wilde-1882.html.

Figure 1: Napoleon Sarony, Number 26, 1882-1883, photograph, size 454x759 cm. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas. https://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/sarony/sarony-photographs-of-oscar-wilde-1882.html.

Number 26

Baudelaire accentuated the importance of the dandy presenting himself as an object of beauty for society to contemplate; however, the manner he does so conflicted with Epicurean beliefs.


In Number 26, Wilde personalised aristocratic clothing where his cape draped his body in a slanting line to suggest freedom, mystery and resembled a dress. Masculinity was suggested by his varsity pearl hat, which however was tilted down to the left while his necktie was scrunched, tilted and uneven.


Hence, Wilde’s flamboyance symbolises his lack of interest in adhering to mainstream Victorian plain clothing. This mirrored dandyism’s goal of evoking admiration of himself, contemplation of the beautiful, and his body (Guan 2018, p. 25). The admiration of himself led to a good life in Epicurean philosophy as the dandy pursued pleasure while adhering to eudaimonia, which centralised around ideas of desires for one’s own sake and self-sufficiency in living a worthy life (Voorhoeve 2018, p. 1-12). Nonetheless, Wilde’s expressionless face turned away from the audience to something off-camera.


This suggested the dandy’s lack of interest in pleasing society while maintaining the stoicism of a dandy. The expression is related to Baudelaire’s claim that the gaze of a dandy was like a cat’s penetrating gazes fixed on eternity (Black 1988-1989, p. 189).


This was present in Prince’s photograph and Dandy Queens which suggested ideas of the spiritual and the stoical (Baudelaire 1863, p.28). The disinterest in pleasing society however conflicted with Epicurus’ value of eudaimonia which considered one must live a sufficient life in the eyes of others.


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This conflicted with the principle of dandyism to challenge aristocracy, which inherently lead to conflict and frustration Epicureans avoided. Thus, Wilde’s photograph demonstrated the compatibility and conflict between Baudelaire’s dandy and Epicurean values.

Warner Bros/Allstar, Prince, 1986, photograph, size 15.4 x 23.4 cm. Warner Bros/Allstar photograph. Reproduced from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2016/apr/21/prince-legacy-iconic-photographs-career#img-3.

Warner Bros/Allstar, Prince, 1986, photograph, size 15.4 x 23.4 cm. Warner Bros/Allstar photograph. Reproduced from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2016/apr/21/prince-legacy-iconic-photographs-career#img-3.

Prince

The pursuit of pleasure in dandyism was a male pursuit according to Baudelaire, however, dandy androgyny was adopted by women. Baudelaire considered women as only an example for a man to acquire beauty (Black 1988-1989, p. 188). Nonetheless, the dandy presented in Dandy Queens was the femme a` la mode in which women would dress in traditionally masculine formal attire to monopolise the public’s gaze like Wilde and Prince (Gill 2007, p. 170).


Dandy Queens showed suits with muted colours contrasting with pinks and reds. This balance of dark and flamboyant colours balanced masculinity with femininity comparable to Prince contrasting his suit with his high heels. Female dandies were characterised as cold and self-assertive. This was represented in the figures gazing away from the camera, suggesting mystery and disinterest in the audience which resembled Number 26.


The dominance presented highlighted the female dandy’s lack of feminine traits such as softness and sensuality (Gill 2007, pp. 168-173). Alike Wilde, an air of aristocratic sophistication was carried through the clothing while intellect was suggested through glasses. However, the colour and patterns in the background resembled the atmosphere Wilde considered important to encourage the dandy archetype, such as flowers, paintings, and highly decorated spaces (Guan 2018, p. 26).


Additionally, like Prince, the dark complexion of these dandies’ skin rebelled against the Baudelaire’s Caucasian dandy. The self-expression exhibited in challenging norms of gender and racial representations of the traditional dandy expanded ideas on who could pursue beauty and pleasure with dandyism.

Prisca M. Monnier, Dandy Queens, 2015, photograph, size 750x 430 cm. Blackattitude Magazine. Reproduced from https://afropunk.com/2015/05/feature-dandy-queens-new-editorial-from-blackattitude-magazine/

Prisca M. Monnier, Dandy Queens, 2015, photograph, size 750x 430 cm. Blackattitude Magazine. Reproduced from https://afropunk.com/2015/05/feature-dandy-queens-new-editorial-from-blackattitude-magazine/

Dandy Queens

A dandy’s artistic expression in their appearance differed regardless of the blueprint Baudelaire presented on the archetype. Cosmetics was encouraged by Baudelaire who claimed women used makeup to appear supernatural to charm onlookers. Prince showcased the use of black eyeliner which Baudelaire claimed were frames symbolic of an excessive and supernatural life (Baudelaire 1863, p. 33-34). Makeup for dandies was used to manufacture one’s appearance, creating a calculated yet naturally distinguished appearance (Wohlfarth 1970, p. 560).


The black indeed captured the audience’s attention, however, the role of makeup on women was challenged by Dandy Queens. Rather, women in this artwork captured the audience’s attention with dominating stances, the focus of their gazes and masculine features without makeup.


Regardless, the feminine elements Prince adopted presented the dandy’s quest to imitate women and present himself as an artwork. While maintaining similar gazes, Wilde’s expression of the dandy was barefaced with aristocratic clothing, Prince’s outfit consisted of a black blazer and pants with a silky texture, swirling patterns, large buttons on the sides of his pants and high heels.


The highly decorated and flamboyant expression extended through the traditionally feminine pose of the legs crossed over the other with the masculine openness of the arms. Social norms of gender expression were challenged through this while challenging masculinity and placed queerness at the forefront which differed from Wilde’s tame clothing and hidden chest. The challenge to social norms was further challenged through the irony of Prince wearing a cross when dandyism confronted conservatism.


The background was in pastel colours and the decorative element of the floral design in the background related to Wilde’s idea of a background fitting for the dandy temperament, and while less decorated, this was seen in Dandy Queens (Guan 2018, p. 26). Henceforth, the comparisons between Wilde, Prince and Dandy Queen’s depiction of Dandyism depicted unique self-expressions while pursuing beauty and pleasure.

Thomas Tegg, Laceing a Dandy, 1819, hand-colored etching, size 33.5 x 21.3 cm. Rogers Fund and The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund. Reproduced from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/384283.

Thomas Tegg, Laceing a Dandy, 1819, hand-colored etching, size 33.5 x 21.3 cm. Rogers Fund and The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund. Reproduced from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/384283.

Lacing a Dandy

The criticism in Lacing a Dandy highlighted a fundamental reason why Dandyism conflicted with the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure. Baudelaire’s dandy sought to draw attention, and invite criticism while the dandy indulged in the self, which is what the artwork satirised (Godfrey 1982, p. 23).


The dandy central in the artwork had a disproportionate body with large hips and oval shapes portraying bulging in the chest, thighs, shoulders, and stomach. Additionally, the dandy had large hair and a tall neck with a direct stare at the audience. This gaze contrasted with the other images where the heads were at an angle and were presented as attractive. This removed the mystery from the gaze along with the romanticisation of dandies presented in Number 23, Prince and Dandy Queens. The dandy’s androgyny was further mocked through his corset which was comically tight. Rather than celebrate the dandy, this artwork criticised it, undermining the mentality of the dandy holding superior taste while above society while using elements such as floral design present in Prince’s portrait and Dandy Queens (Godfrey 1982, p. 24).


The attack on the dandy’s portrayal of femininity created the question of masculine desire when embodying this archetype (Hadlock 2001-2002, p. 59). Femininity in this sense was targeted which portrayed the dehumanisation of women and how dandies shared such alienation (Hadlock 2001-2002, p. 65). While such criticism was invited by Baudelaire, Epicurus sought to live a life free of struggle.


However, as highlighted, the path of a dandy leaves the individual open to a life of criticism, alienation and public ridicule which was counterintuitive to living a life of tranquillity. Overall, Lacing a Dandy presented a satirical view of Baudelaire’s dandy which presented different methods of achieving a life of pleasure in comparison to Epicurean philosophy.

Epicurus's Three Steps To Happiness

The gender expression within Baudelaire’s perception of the dandy evolved with society while retaining the goal of pursuing pleasure by embracing the self. Baudelaire pursued this by blending femininity and masculinity with an anti-aristocratic stance while Epicurus strove to live a good life through embracing pleasure and rejecting pain. Wilde adhered to Baudelaire’s goal of admiring the self and contemplation of the beautiful through his feminine and masculine styling of aristocratic clothing. Dandy Queens was a representation of the femme a` la mode used the archetype of the dandy to challenge societal perceptions of femininity and masculinity.


Prince contrasted Dandy Queens through the flamboyance of a traditional dandy through clothing, makeup, and gaze. Epicurean concerns towards living a life without pain while considered sufficient was emphasised through Lacing a Dandy. Overall, philosophies such as Epicureanism and Dandyism presented snapshots into the values within the society of their construction, continuing to pose relevant guidelines for those pursuing beautiful lives.

The Art of Being a Dandy

Reference List

Baudelaire, Charles. Mayne, Jonathon. 1995. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (Phaidon Arts and Letters). London. Phaidon Press. ISBN13: 9780714833651.

Bergsma, Ad; Liefbroer, Aart C; Poot, Germaine. 2008. “Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus.” Journal of Happiness Studies 9: 397-423. 10.1007/s10902-006-9036-z.

Black, Lynette C. 1988-1989. “Baudelaire As Dandy: Artifice And The Search For Beauty.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 17 (1/2): 186-188. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23532519.

Gill, Miranda. 2007. “The Myth Of The Female Dandy.” French Studies 61 (2): 167-181. doi:10.1093/fs/knm062.

Godfrey, Sima. 1982. “The Dandy as Ironic Figure.” The John Hopkins University Press 11 (36): 21-33. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3684311.

Guan, Beibei. 2018. “Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism.” Journal of Arts & Humanities 7 (2): 2167-9045. http://dx.doi.org/10.18533/journal.v7i2.1331.

Hadlock, Phillip G. 2001-2002. “The Other Other: Baudelaire, Melancholia, and the Dandy.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 30 (1/2): 58-67. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23538076.

Voorhoeve, Alex. 2018. “Epicurus on Pleasure, a Complete Life, and Death: A Defence.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 118: 1-21. 10.1093/arisoc/aoy018.

Wohlfarth, Irving. 1970. “Perte d'Auréole: The Emergence of the Dandy.” The John Hopkins University Press 85 (4): 529-1571. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2907997.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Simran Singh

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