Decadent Style

Decadent Style

Decadent Style

Decadent Style


In "Decadent Style," John Reed defines decadent art broadly enough to encompass literature, music, and the visual arts and precisely enough to examine individual works in detail. Reed focuses on the essential characteristics of this style and distinguishes it from non esthetic categories of decadent artists and decadent themes.

Like the natural sciences and psychology, the arts in the late nineteenth century reflect an interest in the process of atomization. Literature and the other arts mirror this interest by developing, or rather elaborating, existing forms to the point of what appears to be dissolution. Instead of these forms dissolving, however, they require their audience's participation and thus involve a new order. Reed argues that this process of reordering characterizes decadent style, which depends upon sensory provocation resolvable only through negation and is therefore bounded by philosophical and emotional assumptions of inevitable frustration.

Drawing upon the literature, music, and visual arts of England and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, Reed provides a widely ranging and authoritative overview of decadent style, which relates such artists as Huysmans, Wilde, D Annunzio, Moreau, Bresdin, Klimt, Klinger, Wagner, and Strauss. He related decadent style to Pre Raphaelite and Naturalist preoccupation with detail and to aesthetic and Symbolist fascination with sensibility and idealism. Ultimately, Reed argues, decadent style is a late stage of Romanticism, overshadowed by Symbolism but anticipating, in its attempt to yoke incompatibilities and to engender a new cerebral form, some of the main traits of Modernism."


This is not a historical study or a description of cultural conditions in late-nineteenth-century Europe. It is, instead, an examination of artistic methods. It explains how style is related to the material it treats and how it may be seen as a manifestation of certain characteristic intellectual assumptions. It is an attempt to broaden appreciation of the function of style in the arts.

What I call Decadent style is deeply entwined in the various aesthetic developments of the fin de siècle but has its own definite characteristics. I have capitalized the word when using it in this specific sense. Uncapitalized the word decadence refers to all those carelessly defined manifestations of change that inspired anxiety and depression in the second half of the last century.

I have purposely confined myself to a limited area of study and have made no attempt to discuss theater, architecture, or other possible fields. Similarly, although I have considered artists from sev-

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