Walter Pater Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111207103-Pater.jpgWalter Pater Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: His emphasis upon the importance of sensibility and feeling made Pater a central figure in the “art for art’s sake” movement that marked the transition from Victorian realism to twentieth century modernism.

Early Life

Walter Horatio Pater was born August 4, 1839, in London, England. His mother, née Maria Hill, came from a northern family and was a member of the Church of England; his father, Richard Pater, was a former Roman Catholic surgeon who died in 1842. According to family tradition, their most distinguished ancestor was the French painter Jean-Baptiste Pater (1695-1736), although the English branch of the Paters had become prominent merchants in the lace trade on the Norfolk-Suffolk coast. After his father’s death, Pater’s family moved to Enfield, from which he entered King’s School, Canterbury, in 1853 and then matriculated at Oxford’s Queen’s College in 1858.

At Oxford, Pater studied Plato with the legendary professor of Greek Benjamin Jowett, became interested in German philosophy as the result of two visits to Germany, and was graduated with a degree in classics in 1862. He remained at Oxford and tutored private pupils until elected a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1865, the year in which he also made an extensive tour of Italy. His discovery of the achievements of the Italian Renaissance resulted in a series of essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, and other major figures, which were collected in his first book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873).

Pater settled upon his major intellectual interests during a period of great aesthetic controversy. The “art for art’s sake” philosophy espoused by the poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne was in full bloom, as many of the era’s creative talents rebelled against what they viewed as the crass materialism of Victorian society. Pater’s dislike of any sort of unpleasantness kept him from engaging in the more partisan aspects of this conflict, but his stress upon the cultivation of aesthetic sensibilities made him an influential—if often reluctant—ally of those advocating greater freedom for the artistic temperament.

Although Pater’s love of the fine arts was characterized by an almost religious fervor, his personal appearance often surprised those who knew him only from his writings. His clean-shaven cheeks and short, neat mustache were unusual in an age when extensive facial hair was the male norm, and in combination with his six-foot height and solid build often led to his being described as a dead ringer for a military officer. This impression was supported by his simple, precisely tailored clothes and the distinctive manner in which he walked—quickly and with a noticeable swing of his shoulders. A high, receding forehead and sparkling eyes set close together rounded out a public image that struck most contemporary commentators as quite at variance with the nature of his literary accomplishments.

Life’s Work

The essays collected in Studies in the History of the Renaissance were adopted as a kind of manifesto by what became known as the “aesthetic movement,” which included Rossetti, Swinburne, and such Pre-Raphaelite artists as John Everett Millais and W. Holman Hunt among its members. Pater’s writing was lauded for having turned criticism into one of the fine arts, although those opposed to aestheticism attacked it as sterile, subjective, and dangerously hedonistic. Particularly controversial was the conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, in which Pater argued that those who would succeed in life must “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame.” To many Victorian sensibilities this seemed a positively immoral basis for a philosophy of life: Thus, the conclusion was omitted from the book’s second edition (The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1877) and only restored to its third edition (1888) in a revised and much less inflammatory version.

Pater’s life at Oxford revolved around the home that he maintained with his two unmarried sisters, where a few friends and disciples served as a sounding board for his ideas on literature and art. He had little to do with the administrative affairs of his college, and on a typical day might well not leave the house except for a short evening walk. Despite his avoidance of publicity, Pater was held in very high regard by his colleagues: The Brasenose College chapel contains a memorial showing him in the center of a group consisting of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and Plato.

Much of Pater’s work was...

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Walter Pater Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Walter Horatio Pater (PAY-tur) was born in London on August 4, 1839. Having attended King’s School in Canterbury and graduated with a B.A. degree from Queen’s College, Oxford, he was made Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, from which he received his M.A. degree in 1865. He was connected with this college in some capacity during most of the rest of his life. During vacations he often traveled on the Continent. He died at Oxford after a brief illness, on July 30, 1894.

Much of Pater’s literary output consisted of critical essays on aesthetic subjects, most of which were collected in such works as Studies in the History of the Renaissance and Appreciations: With an Essay on Style. Critics have spoken of his sensual approach to art, and some are bothered by a certain subjective impressionism in his criticism. Pater also wrote a few romances, the most famous of which is Marius the Epicurean. There is a relation between these romances and his critical works, because in the romances he seems to advocate that life itself be approached as an art. Through elaborate sentences with delicate shadings he worked continually for perfection of expression in his prose style. Although Pater spent most of his life in academic seclusion, he had a profound influence on a group of perceptive younger artists and critics.

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold, ed. Walter Pater. New York: Chelsea House, 1985....

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Walter Pater Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

For a writer who was to become the subject of numerous debates and controversies regarding the tendency of his works, the quality of his influence, and the dubiety of his doctrines, Walter Horatio Pater’s life seems, at first glance, a singularly colorless affair. The youngest son of a dedicated physician who died prematurely, Pater, born in London on August 4, 1839, was reared in a household dominated by his sisters, his mother, and his godmother. He remained, throughout childhood, indifferent to the activities or sports of his peers, preferring to imagine a world of ceremonious gallantry and hieratic ritual. He manifested a deep attachment to the solemn devotions and sumptuous worship of the Anglican Church. A need to remain true to the irrepressible skepticism and intellectual scrupulousness of his own nature prevented him, at the last, from acting upon his early impulses and taking orders. With a temperament more than commonly inclined to self-analysis and introspection, Pater, following his matriculation at Queens College, Oxford, chose to pursue an academic career. He was elected a junior fellow at Brasenose College in 1864.

From the first, the young don was regarded with certain suspicions, “having acquired,” as Humphry Ward observed, “a new and daring philosophy of his own, and a wonderful gift of style.” Benjamin Jowett, the famous translator of Plato, was acutely displeased with the seemingly subversive conclusion to The...

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