Art Term

Decadence

Decadence generally refers to an extreme manifestation of symbolism which appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century and emphasised the spiritual, the morbid and the erotic

Aubrey Beardsley, ‘Messalina and her Companion’ 1895
Aubrey Beardsley
Messalina and her Companion 1895
Tate

The term came into use in the 1880s with, for example, the French journal Le Décadent published in 1886. Decadents were inspired partly by a disgust at the corruption and rampant materialism of the modern world and partly by a related desire to escape it into realms of the aesthetic, fantastic, erotic or religious.

In art it can be seen as a key influence on the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and then Edward Coley Burne-Jones in Britain and also Aubrey Beardsley and Simeon Solomon. Other artists working within the decadent mode were Khnopff, Moreau and Rops. Key books include Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against Nature) and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

Selected artworks in the collection