Walter Pater

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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...

(This entire section contains 1929 words.)

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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 first published in periodicals such as Fortnightly Review, Westminster Review, Pall Mall Gazette, and The Athenaeum, and it was then collected in volumes such as Imaginary Portraits (1887), Appreciations (1889), and Plato and Platonism: A Series of Lectures (1893). As the title of the second of these suggests, Pater’s critical faculties were directed toward the discovery of excellence rather than the detection of failure. He largely disregarded matters of technique, and instead sought to elucidate the qualities of temperament and the relevant aesthetic contexts which lay behind the actual work of art. For Pater, the artist has a valuable message for the informed, aware, and sympathetic audience, and it is the responsibility of the critic to respond to art in a manner that conveys its significant spiritual aspects.

As attacks upon his position mounted, among them an unflattering fictional caricature in William Hurrell Mallock’s satire The New Republic (1877), Pater decided to write a major work which would demonstrate how his ideas enhanced the encounter with life’s aesthetic elements. Marius the Epicurean (1885) is a loosely structured novel organized around the experiences of its protagonist, whose coming of age in second century Rome brings him into contact with a wide range of religious and philosophic ideals. At the end of the book, Marius is inclined toward but not yet fully convinced of the validity of Christianity, a conclusion that many critics found unsatisfactory in its tacit approval of heretical views. It nevertheless accurately reflected Pater’s belief that it was openness to experience rather than the insistence upon dogmatic certainties which characterized the truly sensitive soul, and the book became one of the key texts for adherents of the aesthetic movement.

Pater’s later years found him venturing a bit further into the social whirl. He rented a house in London, began to be seen in literary society, and even gave a few public lectures—in which his extreme nervousness was evident—on Renaissance art and literature. The year 1894 found him at the pinnacle of his success, an object of veneration by such young talents as Oscar Wilde and William Butler Yeats and the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. In June of that year, however, he was suddenly taken ill with rheumatic fever and then pleurisy, and on July 30, he died of heart failure occasioned by his long illness. Although he was deeply mourned by his many friends and disciples, it was in a sense appropriate that a life dedicated to the appreciation of beauty should cease at the apex rather than the nadir of its accomplishments.


Walter Pater’s role in the sudden decline of the Victorian ethos and the equally rapid ascendancy of literary modernism was a crucial one. The fact that he was an extraordinarily shy, almost reclusive figure for much of his life meant that his influence rested upon his writings rather than a charismatic personality, and as a result he was taken seriously by the many intellectuals who viewed more flamboyant aesthetes—Wilde, most notoriously—as objects of ridicule rather than respect. Pater’s solid academic background and early training in philosophy also helped to make his ideas palatable to many members of the educational establishment.

Pater’s work also found many enthusiasts outside the ivory towers of England’s great universities. His championing of the subjective approach to critical appreciation was immensely liberating to those reared in an atmosphere of Victorian deference to tradition and order, since it in effect substituted fresh individual responses for stale received opinions. Taking Pater as their guide, many people found the courage to express their own opinions without worrying about whether these were in line with the conventional wisdom.

In hindsight, Pater necessarily assumes the role of an early prophet in a revolution that has now been largely won. In addition to his historical importance as an advocate of the primacy of the developed aesthetic sense, however, Pater’s elegant literary style can still be enjoyed by connoisseurs of fine writing, not least because it succeeds in exemplifying in prose what his heroes had achieved in the fine arts. Although the figures of such spiritual descendants as Wilde and Yeats now far overshadow that of Pater, it is important to remember that he was one of the first to oppose a dead and oppressive past with a vision of the capacity for enjoyment latent in everyone’s endowments of feeling and sensibility.


Benson, Arthur Christopher. Walter Pater. London: Macmillan, 1906. A typical example of Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series, in which a light tone and the absence of scholarly apparatus conceal a thorough acquaintance with the subject. Although Benson got many of his facts wrong, his deft sketches of Pater’s Oxford background and dominant personality traits still make the book worth consulting.

De Laura, David J. Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970. A detailed investigation of the intellectual and personal relations maintained by three significant Victorian figures. The book is closely reasoned and not always easy to follow, but it is nevertheless a rewarding study that is particularly good on the history of the aesthetic movement.

Levey, Michael. The Case of Walter Pater. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. Levey describes his work as a biography and includes an adequate account of Pater’s early years, but his real focus is on his life as an Oxford don and the autobiographical nature of his writings. Levey often illuminates the connections between Pater’s life and work, although he sometimes comes up with speculations that seem insufficiently grounded in historical fact.

Monsman, Gerald. Walter Pater’s Art of Autobiography. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980. This attempt to abstract an autobiography from Pater’s fiction theorizes that whatever the ostensible subject, he was in fact always meditating on the death of his parents. A Freudian interpretation expressed in the very latest modes of textual analysis; an interesting and provocative, if not always convincing, effort.

Pater, Walter. Letters of Walter Pater. Edited by Lawrence Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. Contains 272 of Pater’s generally brief and uninformative letters. This material has been very well researched and annotated, and the reader does gain a good idea of what Pater’s daily routine was like, if very little idea of what really engaged his more subtle thought processes.

Stein, Richard L. The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Stein argues that writing about art was a distinctive genre for the Victorians, and he discusses his three subjects in terms of their literary treatment of painting, sculpture, and architecture. The best elucidation of Pater’s art criticism and its cultural antecedents.

Wright, Thomas. The Life of Walter Pater. 2 vols. London: Everett and Co., 1907. Wright is constantly pointing out mistakes in Benson’s Walter Pater, and it must be admitted that Wright’s documentation is much superior. Wright seems to have little feel, however, for Pater’s elusive personality and is often an irritatingly clumsy writer. An essential but by no means polished resource.