From Benford's Gilbert and Sullivan Lexicon:
For his next libretto, Patience, Gilbert chose to poke fun at the "aesthetic" craze that had then been in vogue in England for a couple of decades. For full enjoyment of the work you should know something about the aesthetic movement. Its progenitors included William Morris (poet and designer), Edward Burne-Jones (painter), James Whistler (painter), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poet and artist), and Algernon Swinburne (poet). They formed a closely-knit group with uniform convictions about the dreary constraints of Victorian art, design, and literature -- and the new direction in which they ought to steer it. They elevated the search for beauty above all other aims in life and thus came to be referred to collectively as "the aesthetes." The writers sought freedom from stuffiness and extreme respectability. The painters wanted to rescue art from the traditions of the Renaissance religious painter Raphael, whose style still influenced accepted artists of the day. They sought inspiration in earlier, romantic themes, often with story-telling composition enhanced with elaborate decorative detail. It was this harking back to earlier styles of art that gave them the popular name "Pre-Raphaelites," a designation that was often applied to the writers as well.
The aesthetes were unquestionably talented. Their free-thinking proclivities, however, often led to bizarre affectations in attire, speech, and life style. Moreover, they attracted a large following of admirers who mimicked their superficial behavior but lacked the talent to emulate their commendable works. Gilbert's jibes were not directed at the talented work of the aesthetes. Rather, they were directed at their eccentric affectations and, most of all, at their ranks of mindless admirers.
At the time Gilbert was writing the libretto, Oscar Wilde, a recent Oxford graduate, was determined to make a name for himself as an aesthete. He carried the bizarre features to new extremes and probably served in part as one of Gilbert's targets. His advocacy of knee breeches for men and Grecian costumes for women is still reflected in most productions of the opera. He became strongly identified with the opera, especially when D'Oyly Carte paid him to go on a lecture tour of North America so the American public would know what the fun was all about. Nevertheless, each of the aesthetic poets in Patience appears to bear characteristics attributable to several of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, as well as to Oscar Wilde.
You should also know that for a period during his work on the opera, Gilbert intended to feature two rival curates (based on his Bab Ballad The Rival Curates) rather than two rival poets (272). Traces of those clergymen are still to be found in the libretto.
For a nicely summarized explanation of the aesthetic movement and Patience, see Williamson (318). For more complete expositions see Fido (119), Ellmann (101), Beerbohm (32), Stedman (272), Forty (120), and Von Eckardt (297).
The opera opened at the Opera Comique on April 23, 1881. The following October 10 it was transferred to a new theater, the Savoy, which Carte had designed and built specifically for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. This was the first theater to be illuminated throughout by electricity, although a gas-light system was also included just in case the new gadgetry should fail. (The theater still stands, and has recently been rebuilt after a disastrous fire.) Patience was well received and ran for 578 performances.
Although Patience was highly topical, it has remained popular because the affectations satirized in the opera live on today in the arts, in politics, and in nearly every walk of life. Gilbert's memorial on the Thames Embankment carries the words "His foe was folly and his weapon wit." That was never more true than when he wrote Patience.