Consistency Is the Last Refuge of the Unimaginative

Oscar Wilde? James McNeill Whistler? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: Being consistent is important in life. Yet, additional knowledge and experience motivates new thoughts and behaviors. The following adage criticizes the straitjacket of excessive consistency:

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1885 Oscar Wilde published an essay about the prominent painter James McNeill Whistler in “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London. Wilde contended that the philosophy of painting propounded by Whistler was inconsistent with the artworks he was creating. But Wilde was eager to forgive this lapse. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1885 February 28, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

Nor do I feel quite sure that Mr. Whistler has been himself always true to the dogma he seems to lay down, that a painter should only paint the dress of his age, and of his actual surroundings: far be it from me to burden a butterfly with the heavy responsibility of its past: I have always been of opinion that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative: but have we not all seen, and most of us admired, a picture from his hand of exquisite English girls strolling by an opal sea in the fantastic dresses of Japan? Has not Tite-street been thrilled with the tidings that the models of Chelsea were posing to the master, in peplums, for pastels?

Whatever comes from Mr. Whistler’s brush is far too perfect in its loveliness, to stand, or fall, by any intellectual dogmas on art, even by his own: for Beauty is justified of all her children, and cares nothing for explanations.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1841 the well-known transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay entitled “Self-Reliance” which included a thematically pertinent remark:[ref] 1841, Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay 2: Self-Reliance, Start Page 45, Quote Page 58, James Fraser, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.

In 1884 Oscar Wilde published an essay about clothing in “The Pall Mall Gazette”. One of Wilde’s detractors emphasized the “practical” aspects of clothing, and Wilde responded by presenting a different adage which contained the phrase “last refuge of”:[ref] 1884 November 11, The Pall Mall Gazette, More Radical Ideas Upon Dress Reform by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]

The word practical is nearly always the last refuge of the uncivilised.

In 1885 the adage under examination appeared in “The Pall Mall Gazette” as mentioned previously. Wilde’s essay containing the maxim was also reprinted in the weekly periodical “The Pall Mall Budget”:[ref] 1885 March 6, The Pall Mall Budget, Volume 33, Number 858, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Column 1, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I have always been of opinion that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

In 1893 Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance” was produced in London. Wilde included a different quip using the phrase “last refuge of”:[ref] 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde, Uniform Edition, A Woman of No Importance (Play first performed in 1893), First Act, Quote Page 49, Keller-Farmer Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

LORD ILLINGWORTH: Shall we go in to tea?
MRS. ALLONBY: Do you like such simple pleasures?
LORD ILLINGWORTH: I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.

In 1894 Oscar Wilde published a collection of sayings in “The Chameleon”. Below are four items from the set. The third used the phrase “last refuge of”:[ref] 1894, The Chameleon, Volume 1, Number 1, Edited by John Francis Bloxam, Article: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2 and 3, Gay and Bird, London. (British Library website; accessed on October 28, 2020) link [/ref]

Only the shallow know themselves.
One should always be a little improbable.
Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.
One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.

In 1946 Hesketh Pearson published the biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit” which included many quotations from Wilde. Below are three examples:[ref] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Chapter 12: The Wit, Quote Page 171, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
“Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
“Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.”

In 1995 “The Uncollected Oscar Wilde” edited by John Wyse Jackson reprinted the 1885 essay from “The Pall Mall Gazette” which contained the quotation.[ref] 1995, The Uncollected Oscar Wilde by Oscar Wilde, Edited by John Wyse Jackson, Article Title: The Relation of Dress to Art – A note in Black and White on Mr Whistler’s Lecture, Article Date: February 28, 1885, Periodical: Pall Mall Gazette, Start Page 51, Quote Page 52, Fourth Estate, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde deserves credit for this quotation based on Wilde’s 1885 article in “The Pall Mall Gazette”. Ralph Waldo Emerson made a similar point in an 1841 essay.

Image Notes: Cropped image of James McNeill Whistler’s painting titled “Variations in Flesh Colour and Green, The Balcony”. The public domain painting shows a group of young women with Japanese dresses and musical instruments.

(Great thanks to Alan Connor whose inquiry about a variant quotation attributed to Oscar Wilde led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Ralph Keyes whose valuable compilation “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” aided QI during the construction of this article.)

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