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 syntactical 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




Pulchrismn. [puhl-kriz(ə)m]
Pulchrism is an art movement which champions Beauty as the purpose of art.

The Pulchrist Manifesto  has been recognized as a  significant historical art manifesto,  and the words  Pulchrism,  Pulchrist, and  Pulchristic   have  been added to Wiktionary.



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.