While the term ‘decadence’ has been used in relation to myriad western art movements throughout history, it has a specific ambiguity when describing 19th century art.
As Laurel Brake notes in her essay “Endgames: The Politics of The Yellow Book or Decadence, Gender and the New Journalism,” the meaning of decadence is “unstable,” a “hybrid-formation” of artists as opposed to an actual movement (47). Rather, decadence seems to have functioned as a set of stylistic characteristics, with Brake noting that “impressionism, feminism, naturalism, dandyism, symbolism and classicism all participate in the politics of decadence in the (18)90s” (48).
Oxford Art Online places the origins of 19th century decadence in 1840s France, with Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence. This work emphasized “contemporary life and a sensation” in “Roman sexual depravity and vanitas (vanity),” to which later decadent art would add “a strong anti-establishment ethos” (OAO)
By the 1880s, European decadence came to represent a more “self-conscious aestheticism,” spreading from painting into many different artistic media (OAO). In The Yellow Book’s second volume, artist Max Beerbohm’s definition of decadence reflects this artifice, also associating decadence with “paradox and marivaudage, lassitude, a love of horror and all unusual things, a love of argot and archaism and the mysteries of style …” (Brake 46). By the 1890s, publications such as The Yellow Book represented “a self-conscious player in the performance of Decadence” (Brake 47).
Brake, Laurel. “Endgames: The Politics of The Yellow Book or, Gender, Decadence and the New Journalism.” Essays and Studies, 48 (1995): 38-64. Print. 19 Oct 2015.
Decadence and decline. Oxford University Press. Web. 24 Oct 2015.