Pulchrism: Discovery of a Lost Romantic Word


'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' 
- John Keats

During the filming of my first film El Angel, which was shot in and around the L.A. River in 1994-5, I had a spiritual crisis of deep existentialist doubt. While lying in bed one morning, in my apartment in Los Feliz, Hollywood, I began to die of some sort of despair. I began to let go of life. Ethereal clouds -- at once colorless and opalescent -- appeared through a parting reality. My soul questioned the purpose of life, doubting its validity. I ascended and descended simultaneously into an extracted space which was Beautiful. At that point some sort of Divine command issued forth at me - and I remember deciding to myself, in the deepest core of my being, that I would "LIVE FOR BEAUTY".  I decided that moment to dedicate my life to attempting to communicate Beauty. It has become the purpose of my life.

Early in 2012, I was standing in line at the Bowery branch of a prominent health food store in New York City, indulging my somewhat obsessive habit of brainstorming potential dot-com domain names. Beauty words were the subject of my exploration, as I had a vague notion in mind that I might be able to come up with a name for my particular style of artistic practice.

As I was playing with words related to Beauty, I began to toss around the word pulchritude -- and it dawned on me - PULCHRISM! Instantly enamored of the word as a description for my proprietary art style, I began to wonder as to its morphological acceptability. I hurriedly returned to my Bowery apartment and began to scour the internet for any usage of the word I might find. Link after link, I found nothing! Neither the British Library, nor the Library of Congress, had a single instance of the word listed in their entire respective catalogues. No dictionary had Pulchrism listed, including the Oxford English Dictionary. I only found half-instances of parts of the word, contained in gobbledegook-ridden webpages filled with scrambled code -- and very close, but not matching, Latin conjugations of the word pulcher. Then a small miracle occured. Deep inside an antique British periodical, published in London in 1839, the word Pulchrism finally appeared!

The following excerpt shows the word Pulchrism as cited in The Athenæum: A Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Music, and the Drama, page 20, column 1, written by prominent neoclassical sculptor Richard Westmacott, and edited by James Silk Buckingham, published 1839 in London, England.

Thus has it established a tyranny of the utilitarian principle, which would exterminate, or persecute with bigot scorn and blind prejudice, that principle it ought to cherish as a twin-brother--its supposed antagonist, though really conjugate principle, by some called Pulchrism, but rather to be called Idealism,--such as engages us in the abstract, imaginative moral pleasures and pursuits, no more fantastic or useless than are the handicraft operations, so long as human creatures have souls within their bodies to feed and employ.

This one verifiable instance of the word being used in a 19th century English periodical became a mixed blessing: was it enough to demonstrate the meaning and presence of Pulchrism in official English? For two years now, I have enthusiastically adopted the word - rightfully mine as I coined it independently and of my own imagination - as a perfect emblem for my championing of Beauty as the Ideal purpose of art. But it has so far received no "official" recognition.

Two days ago - on 28 January 2014, I had the great fortune to discover two new instances of the word - Pulchrism and Pulchristic - in early 19th century English documents! Hidden away in the archives of the respected Barton Family of Cumbria, northern England, is a letter written to one Joseph Jansen - a Quaker banker - by John Barton Senior (1789-1852) - an early English economist whose work was discussed by Karl Marx in  Das Kapital, and who was a founder of what would become Birkbeck College. Early 19th century 'political economy' is the general subject of the letter, but towards the end, Barton employs a remarkable and compelling usage of not only the word Pulchrism - but also a conjugate form of it - "Pulchristic"! As the letter was originally transcribed into his personal journal by John Barton Senior himself on the 5th of December, 1825, it predates The Athenaeum's usage of the term Pulchrism by 14 years. But even more importantly, Barton's usage of the word exactly corroborates Westmacott's statement that the "principal, by some called Pulchrism" is a conjugate of Idealism. Following is the pertinent excerpt from John Barton's letter to Joseph Jansen:

"I suspect you are grown more Pulchristic since the days when you read the Wealth of Nations, and would now be struck with a good deal of utilism which did not then offend you. Ricardo is avowedly a pure utilist - but the extraordinary force and brilliance of his analytical investigations almost amounts to a Pulchrism. MacCulloch 'I give up. his writings are the very dregs of nauseous utilism."

What this demonstrates is that gentry, thinkers, and artists of the Romantic Era were using a word which has since disappeared entirely from the English language! Indeed, no word could be considered more Romantic than the word embodying Ideal Beauty - Pulchrism. It describes the quintessence of Romantic thought - and the chronology of both the Barton letter and the volume of The Athenaeum - cited in 1825 and 1839, respectively - could not frame this usage of the word Pulchrism in a timelier context. The conjugation of Pulchrism as Pulchristic by John Barton only further buttresses the verifiability of pertinent usage of these words in a context necessary to demonstrate beyond doubt their existence in 19th century British parlance.

Containing the word Pulchrism in the last paragraph: John Barton Senior Journals 3 and 4 p174 from here.

But the strongest evidence lies in the contrast between the concepts and terms utilism (utilitarianism), and Pulchrism. For this ideological contrast is boldly established in both the letter and the periodical: "Thus has it established a tyranny of the utilitarian principle" writes Westmacott in The Athenaeum, to which he contrasts "its supposed antagonist, though really conjugate principle, by some called Pulchrism, but rather to be called Idealism". Barton - fourteen years earlier - sets up precisely the same juxtaposition in his letter -- not once, but twice! First, he infers that his Quaker friend has "grown more Pulchristic" and that Barton's arguments might strike him "with a good deal of utilism" as a possible counterpoint. Then Barton spells out for us the exact meaning of Pulchrism, as an opposite of utilism: "Ricardo is avowedly a pure utilist - but the extraordinary force and brilliance of his analytical investigations almost amounts to a Pulchrism." Pulchrism is used as a noun equal to Idealism!

The definition employed in that context is nuanced differently than my definition, but seems to have the same significance at its core. My definition is one pertaining to Beauty as the Ideal, theirs to beautiful idealism. I define Pulchrism as an art movement which champions Beauty as the purpose of art.

I stake my claim to the word Pulchrism - it is my invention. But I am also very honored to be the one to resurrect it from its Romantic tomb. Above all, I hope that it will serve to restore Beauty to its place as the Purpose and Meaning of Art.


- Jesse Waugh



UPDATE 2017-06-19: I have discovered a third reference for Pulchrism! Specifically, this reference contains Pulchrism derived as pulchristic. Geert Van Reyn of the University of Leuven was kind enough to send me the relevant excerpt from Augustiniana, Volume 53, from the chapter entitled "'Philokalia' in Augustine's De pulchro et apto", written by Kyung-Yeun Burchill-Limb, which on page 74 states the following: 

"Yet this in turn invites us to ask the question as to whether a treatment of Augustine's aesthetic or rather pulchristic sensitivity should really be limited to this period of De pulchro et apto or whether it did not continue to provide a key element in his elaboration on the uti/frui distinction, together with his sapiential aesthetics of mensura, numerus an pondus."

This is quite a find and it bolsters the idea that the word and notion of Pulchrism, as well as its derivations, have been employed in erudite parlance, and may have even been floating around arcane literature -- unnoticed by the organizers of dictionaries -- for centuries! 

Much thanks to Geert Van Reyn for his help! 


I received the following beautiful elucidation from K. Y. Burchill-Limb via email, pertaining to the usage of the word pulchristic in Kyung's writing:

The term 'pulchristic' is from 'pulchritudo' in Latin (cf. 'pulcher'), which is much more comprehensive than the simple 'beautiful' in our modern expression. I tend to use 'pulchristic' as an alternative for 'kalistic' (cf. 'kalos' in Greek, which is a broad term for 'beautiful' that cannot be dissociated from its root-meaning association with the true and the good (=ontological-aesthetic-ethical). 

I actually prefer kalistic to pulchristic due to its wonderful root meaning of 'kalokagathia' (cf. "kalos" in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1986) vol. V, pp. 304-6.), where there is no schizophrenic dissociation between the beautiful and the good/the useful, in other words, a beautiful person is naturally a morally good person and vice versa. (cf. Cicero's distinction for the purpose of exhorting for the unity between the moral good/beautiful ('honestum') and the good/the useful ('utile').

The key point here is the essence, not its manifestation which is/can be perceived in a plural way. The problem is that we are now very much confused between essence and energy. Many think God, the Beauty (pulchritudo), is the Energy.  True that energy is what makes things/people function, appear and yet it is not the essence itself. 

To my mind, what is emanated from the essence belongs to the realm of its manifestation: root is root, flower is flower, fruit is fruit and seed is seed, and the essence is beyond all this.

The other article I mentioned ("The Actuality of Augustine's Distinction between uti and frui") has been published in Augustiniana (2006, 183-197). 

I appreciate the differentiation which Kyung puts forth in the above quote between kalistic and pulchristic - which I understand to be that while pulchristic, or Pulchrism, refers specifically - and perhaps solely - to Beauty (as God) - and pertains more to energy than essense, kalistic encompasses both energy and essence in one holistic concept. 

This differentiation actually jibes well with Pulchrism in that Pulchrism is meant to be a movement - in other words, action based. So I believe that while the idea of kalos perhaps pertains to the highest of all moral principles - as it joins together essence with manifestation - and incidentally supports my own theory that outward Beauty and inward Beauty reflect each other and are equally important so long as they are true and not feigned -- Pulchrism is an appropriate term for a movement which advocates for the manifestation of Beauty in art - as it is about taking action in this world in an attempt to make it better; as opposed to the essential non-action of unmanifested deity.


Following are scans of the Augustiniana, Volume 53 chapter in question "'Philokalia' in Augustine's De pulchro et aptoby K. Y. Burchill-Limb, which features the word pulchristic in the last paragraph of the page marked 74.




Pulchrismn. [puhl-kriz(ə)m]
Pulchrism is an art movement in which Beauty is paramount.

The Pulchrist Manifesto  has been recognized as a  significant historical art manifesto.



With greatest appreciation, I wish to emphatically thank Dr. David B. H. Barton not only for posting his family's archives in a searchable form which facilitated my finding a confirmation of the existence of the word Pulchrism predating its usage in The Athenaeum, but also for graciously providing support and evidence in the form of correspondence and documentation.