The 19th century was a practical, businesslike time. It was marked by urbanization, industrialization, function, and an emphasis on wealth. The middle class rose in power during this period. As is common historically, when one social trend emerges, other movements arise to push in opposite directions. Early in the century, England saw romantics embracing nature as an alternative to industry. Just after the middle of the century, the aesthetic movement emerged. Members of the aesthetic movement believed in the motto popularized by French poet Théophile Gautier: "Art for art's sake." The Victorians valued art that supported a useful social cause or that carried a moral message. For the aesthetics beauty was enough in itself. Wilde was strongly influenced by this movement. He knew people, like art critic Walter Pater, who helped shape the movement in Britain. Pater influenced Wilde heavily, and Wilde took the critic's book on the Renaissance with him when he traveled. He even went so far as to memorize sections of the volume.
A skilled author, Wilde incorporated the aesthetics' philosophy of beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray while also critiquing it in the same work. After Dorian, Lord Henry Wotton is the most important character in the novel, and he spends more time explaining his philosophy than Dorian does his. Lord Henry is a dandy who places a great deal of importance on keeping up appearances and engaging in leisurely pursuits. The philosophy he articulates is very much an aesthetic one. In Chapter 2 he gives a speech to Dorian in Basil's garden that changes Dorian forever by awakening him to the power and importance of his own beauty, saying, among other things, "And beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight." This is an unflinching celebration of sensual beauty. However, Wilde follows this by showing Dorian living this philosophy and ruining many lives in the process.