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Related Museum Links Oscar Wilde —
The Modern Messiah

Ambrose Bierce attacks Oscar Wilde

Biography of Ambrose Bierce


The Apostle of Estheticism Exposes Our Sins.


The Aristocracy of Minna Street
Gratuitously Insulted by a Disquisition on Mortar.

Oscar Wilde lectured in Platt’s Hall last night on “Art Decoration,” his audience being almost as large as that of the first night, but not so fashionable. There were few celebrities in the reserved seats or boxes, and the gradations of society in the background were quite rapid. The lecturer entered, as on the first night, though the door at the upper end of the stage, and wore his much advertised knee-breeches, velvet coat and lace cuffs. He plunged at once into his subject and struggled desperately to make his elocution more acceptable to the American ear than during his first effort, but the ponderous English accent promptly dragged him down to the level of monotony, and his delivery towards the end of the lecture became very wearisome. He had only read a few sentences, assertive of the beauty and joyousness of a life devoted to art, when the clatter of the dilatory feet of some Mission-street aristocrats caused him to stop and regard the late arrivals with a cold, esthetic stare.


When the noisy delegates from the south had found their seats and fallen into them with shame and confusion, the esthete condescended to proceed with the thankful task of showing us our utter barbarism. He did not regard us as practical, for on every side there are numerous indications that we do not try to make out “handcrawftsman beawtiful,” as he called it, by making his life beautiful. In America the esthetic’s life had been a succession of painful shocks, caused by his introduction to ill-looking rooms in ill-built houses, furnished with blood-curdling evidences of barbarism in the shape of machine rosewood furniture and black-leaded stoves. Everything we are proud to boast of was badly made, and “won’t keep at all.” When he turned from the horrors of our buildings to feast his longing eyes on the joyous beauties of Nature, he found the air horrid with smoke, and the ground hidden with the architecture of our misguided and degenerate day.

“So, you see, you are not at all practical,” said the esthete, and to complete the discomfiture and increase the remorse of his hearers, he gave them a picture of the grand old Gothic buildings and the honestly constructed furniture of the old colonists, more beautiful to-day than ever. Not to leave his audience without hope, however, he told them how to build and furnish houses that should live in song and tradition, and delight the hearts of generations of esthetes yet unborn.


The houses should be built of stone of different natural colors, which can be easily obtained, so that they could be judged like the dying dolphin. He did not speak to the rich, for they could fill their houses with beautiful treasures.

“I speak,” said the esthete, “to you who are not millionaires, if there be any one here who is not a millionaire.”

If we would not or could not build in marble or colored stones, the lecturer advised the selection of red brick or wood. If in wood the material should be carved. Railings should be of beaten iron-work. The entrance to the building should not be papered, but wainscotted with some of the beautiful woods with which the country abounds. If not wainscotted, the entrance should be painted and floored with tiles, if good tiles can be got; but unfortunately all the good tiles were made several hundred years ago. There should be no pictures in the hall. The hat-rack is as hideous as the rack of the Middle Ages. There should be a large oaken chest for cloaks. Marble slabs for tables, unless inlaid, should be proscribed. In all the rooms a keynote of color should be arranged and everything fitted to that, otherwise the apartment must become a museum. Secondary colors should be used for the beginning and the bright and beautiful colors for the embroideries, pictures, etc. The lecturer described as the acme of decorative art the celebrated peacock room in London, where everything is painted so that the ensemble represents the colors of a peacock’s tail.

“But don’t borrow any Chinese art, for you have no need of it any more than you have need of Chinese labor,” said the lecturer—a piece of advice which was hailed by the anti-coolie esthetes near the door with loud applause.


The lecturer next described the esthetic ceiling, which should be anything but the papered one. Plaster would do, but all the great plaster-compounders died several centuries ago in Italy. The esthete’s bitter sarcasm against the plastering ability of the present day caused quite a flutter in the middle section of the hall, where a large number of sunflowers were dancing in the bonnets of the Jessie and Natoma street aristocracy.

From the ceilings the lecturer went to the windows of our modern houses, which are too large, to the carpets, which are too loud, and the pictures, where are all hung high in the air, a disposition which a close inspection of the demerits of composition generally shows to have been wise and humane. The lecturer described the Queen Anne furniture as the best model, and advised the establishment of a museum where the furniture of centuries ago would educate the eye of the artisan, and the furniture of our day would exhibit to posterity the horrors with which we surround ourselves. Instead of grates in our houses the esthete recommended open fire-places with tile hearths. He tabooed chandeliers and advised the use of sconces and good pictures, if we in America can get them, which at present seems unlikely, as we haven’t many. He commended the decoration of pianos after the manner of the French. The esthete said a few kind words for the San Francisco School of Design, which he considered sensible and practical. He though the municipality out to appropriate money for the exhibitions of such a school.


He explained the philosophy of the esthetic dress by asserting that artists have to go back for their subjects to the romantic age. There can be no good historical painting where the dresses of the people are not beautiful and joyous. The lecturer dealt a most unchivalrous blow to the milliners and caused a paroxysm of mortification and rage in half a dozen rows on the left side of the hall.

“How would the Venus of Milo look in one of the ridiculous bonnets made by a modern milliner?” asked the esthete, scornfully.

There were broad smiles on the other side of the hall, where a delegation of Minna and Sixth-street dressmakers were educating their artistic faculties, but the triumph was short-lived.

“How would the Venus de Medicis look in one of the tight, flimsy dresses strung together by the dressmaker of our day?” asked the apostle of the too utterly joyous.


The restlessness which spread itself over the hall after this cruel thrust finally became so great that several honest but apprehensive esthetes rose hurriedly and left. Those who remained were delighted by hearing the lecturer advance to a cogent and unanswerable argument in favor of his velvet coat and knee-breeches.

“If you look,” said he, “at the paintings of George Washington, you will see how a great and brave man arrayed himself.”

After this modest comparison the esthete essayed his peroration, and, running up blithely on the lofty rhetoric of estheticism, terminated his lecture with a grand flourish of words over the art that speaks in the language of all men, and which in its universality is the language of all brotherhood.


At the conclusion of the lecture at Platt’s Hall last night the apostle of estheticism visited the CHRONICLE building. Preparations were in progress for the issue of the semi-weekly edition of the paper, and the visitor availed himself of the opportunity of witnessing the various stages in the publication of a newspaper. The stereotyping process was first noted, the visitor expressing himself thoroughly delighted with its rapidity and simplicity. An inspection of the presses followed. After viewing the wetting down of the paper preparatory to its use on the press, and the printing, cutting, pasting and folding of the paper, all ready for delivery, the visitor alluded in glowing terms to the rapid progress made by American inventors. Throughout the general inspection of the building which followed the visitor was loud in his praises for its thorough appointments. True to the cause of the esthetic deity on whose shrine he worships, the attention of the apostle was most forcibly attracted by the onyx counter in the business office, to which he alluded in the choicest vocabulary of the new civilization.

The news of Mr. Wilde’s visit was rapidly circulated on the street, and when the visitors descended into the business office the doors and windows of the office were besieged by anxious spectators in their desperate endeavors to obtain a glimpse of the esthete.


A scene of considerable excitement occurred yesterday afternoon when Oscar Wilde ventured out in search of Celestial handiwork. In company with a lady and an escort, he called at a Chinese store on Sacramento street, below Kearny. No sooner had he been seen to leave his carriage than a general rush took place, and in a moment the street in front of the store was utterly impassable, and it required the bear-efforts of Officer Curtis to prevent the spectators from precipitating themselves into the store. The purchases completed, Oscar Wilde advanced through the passageway that had been cleared and entered his carriage followed by the lady and her escort. The blinds were pulled down, but the spectators, bent on seeing the esthete at closer quarters, crowded forward and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the apostle leaning back convulsed with laughter. Late in the evening Oscar Wilde fulfilled his duty as a visitor from afar by making a tour of the Chinese quarter.

Mr. Locke announced a matinee lecture by Mr. Wilde for Saturday afternoon at reduced prices. The tickets are now at Gray’s music store. The subject of the discourse is “The House Beautiful,” and “Art Decoration,” embodying remarks concerning dress and the rationale of costumery.

Daily Chronicle
March 30, 1882

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