It is… the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and
makes it marvellous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it
becomes a vital portion of our lives, and symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of
what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive.
—Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1890)
In Victorian Britain, critics and essayists turned with a new enthusiasm toward the subject of the visual arts. Art writing became tremendously popular as art spectatorship came to define taste and culture for a growing middle-class audience. This textual fascination in art accompanied other Victorian interests—in the body, in science, in vision, as well as in history, politics, and global conquest. Victorian writers responded to art with a myriad of textual forms: they published treatises on aesthetics, reviews of exhibitions at museums and galleries, volumes of art history, and lectures to amateur societies. John Ruskin conveys the Victorian passion for aesthetic spectatorship when he writes, famously, in Modern Painters III (1856), “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way… To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”1 Nineteenth-century British writers helped to invent an idea new in the nineteenth century, that art spectatorship could provide one of the most intense and meaningful forms of human experience. The “literate eye” of my title refers both to the Victorian investment in aesthetic education and to the more personal subjectivity that was felt to be affirmed by art’s sublime experience.
In this book, I analyze British art writing to present a newly complex vision of Victorian aesthetics. I locate aesthetic history not only in the visual arts but also in the prismatic assemblage of texts, spaces, institutions, and practices that shaped Victorian critical discourse more broadly. Using the methods of cultural history, I argue that Victorian writers contributed to the emergence of modern AngloAmerican aesthetics, especially in the moves toward formalism and abstraction that would come to dominate twentieth-century canons of art and value. Though