In the spring of 1882, Oscar Wilde, English poet and self-styled aesthetic, visited the unpolished state of Nebraska during a lecture tour. Wilde, his business manager, and a servant arrived in Omaha on March 21, from Sioux City and checked into the Withnell House. That evening he spoke at Boyd’s Opera House, where he discussed his theory of beauty.
As reported in the Omaha Herald the next day, Wilde “wore the suit of black velvet with knee-breeches which has been his usual dress in this country. His hair fell about his shoulders in heavy masses and his dreamy, poetic face grew animated and his large dark eyes lighted up as he entered upon his subject.” Wilde professed intense feelings on art for art’s sake and believed that the pursuit of beauty should dominate man’s intellectual ventures.
Wilde was generally critical of American architecture, and in his lecture gave “his impressions of many American houses, illy designed, decorated shabbily and in bad taste, and filled with furniture that was not honestly made and was out of character. He ‘hit them off’ keenly, and the ripples of subdued laughter in the audience told how well his descriptions of their ‘horrors’ was appreciated. His picture of . . . rows of houses, glaring bill boards and muddy streets was equally graphic.”
Wilde “pronounced against machine-made ornaments as being ugly, coarse and bad, as compared with beautiful and durable handiwork,” and appealed for “schools of design and means of teaching art to the poor so that they can beautify their houses.” He also gave many practical suggestions “on household decoration and art studies, and argued that the lives of boys be made joyous and that they be taught to love the beauties of nature.”
At the close of his lecture, “which was given the most respectful and undivided attention, Mr. Wilde was enthusiastically applauded. He impressed his hearers as earnest, and enthusiastic, and one who was powerful in his appeals for the developing of all that is beautiful in life. Mr. Wilde speaks rapidly, is eloquent at times, and a poet in prose in his word painting.”
A Herald reporter interviewed Wilde at his hotel. Wilde wore a “black, velvet jacket, dark trousers, [and] leather gaiters faced with yellow cloth . . . [A] maroon silk scarf is tied at his throat and a handkerchief of like color and material peeps from the breast pocket of his jacket.” The poet “remarked that he had seen many men of marvelous physique and many beautiful women in the west,” supporting his opinion that “physical beauty is really, absolutely the basis of all great and strong art.”
Oscar Wilde was photographed in New York in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony.