Walter Pater (PAYT-ur) is principally remembered as a critic. His most influential work, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873; revised as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 1877, 1888, 1893), decisively changed the Victorian conception of art as a vehicle for the expression of uplifting sentiments or edifying ideals. Pater, whose unnamed antagonist was John Ruskin, argued that art is preeminently concerned with the dextrous elaboration of its own sensuous ingredients. Form, color, balance, and tone: These are the elements of which art is constituted. Hence, the imposition of a moral upon a painting, a poem, or a musical composition subverts the integrity of the work and distorts the function of criticism. The genuine critic begins with an analysis of the impression that a painting or a poem communicates and then endeavors to trace that impression to the structural elements of which the work is composed. Ultimately, as the notorious conclusion to The Renaissance makes clear, art is chiefly to be cherished as a means of enhancing, expanding, and enlarging the faculties of sensuous apprehension and as a catalyst in the pursuit of more varied, exquisite, and complex sensations. In the last analysis, Pater was inclined to evaluate and judge life itself as an aesthetic phenomenon.
Pater qualified this position in his later works, however, and since Marius the Epicurean—his one completed novel—was expressly written to revise and reevaluate the conclusion of The Renaissance, it is necessary to acquire some preliminary understanding of Pater’s earlier and less complex point of view.
By way of preparation for Marius the...
(The entire section is 696 words.)