Aubrey Beardsley: Defining Art Nouveau from Beauty to Obscenity

How eccentric can an artist be? Aubrey Beardsley proved that there was no limit to the grotesque, repeatedly shocking the public of his time and defining British Art Nouveau.

Jul 16, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
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As one of the most significant figures of British Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, Aubrey Beardsley lived a short life filled with challenges and controversies that marked his path in art. He died at the age of twenty-five, yet he left behind a legacy characterized by his unique style. His work merges Japanese drawing and European medieval book illustrations, which later charmed Picasso, Klimt, and Kandinsky. As an illustrator, Beardsley pursued one thing above all else – eccentricity and the freedom of expression. One of his most famous quotes proves this point amply: “If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.”


By the norms of his time and even by today’s flexible standards, he was indeed grotesque: Beardsley was a decadent young man with an acerbic gaze. He wore yellow gloves and pigeon-grey coats, was a friend of the scandalous Oscar Wilde, and was allegedly even a lover of his own sister Mabel. Aubrey Beardsley was many things, but he was never boring or standard. In the most eccentric fashion, on his deathbed, he asked for his sketches and later works to all be burned. However, they endured, and today tell the complicated story of this mysterious artist.


Aubrey Beardsley: Exotic, Scandalous, Sensational

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Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley by Jaques-Emile Blanche, 1895, via National Portrait Gallery, London


The turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought forth new aesthetics that avoided political and cultural messages.  The art of the day instead cherished sensual pleasures. The undulating and sophisticated forms of Art Nouveau won over the European public, providing creatives with all the means to achieve their hearts’ desires. Drawing inspiration from nature’s soft entanglements, artists in Europe developed new architecture, painting, and poetry styles.


Art Nouveau valued the exotic, the scandalous, and the sensational, opting for symbolism and a touch of decadence that soon spread across the continent. Previously classical forms were now undercut by sophisticated shapes that often served no function but pleased the eye of the beholder. Such was the world of Aubrey Beardsley and many other artists, critics, and intellectuals, who inspired him, including Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and Edward Burne-Jones.


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Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in 1874 to a lower-middle-class family that sent him to the Brighton Grammar School. As a teenager fascinated by design and painting, he worked in an architect’s office, leaving it eventually due to personal disagreements with his boss. Because he had been sick with tuberculosis since his childhood, Beardsley had grand ambitions and little time.


To support himself, he worked in an insurance office in London as a lowly clerk. When Beardsley began to draw, he was fortunate enough to meet Robert Ross, one of the leading art critics of his generation. As a brilliant intellectual and one of Oscar Wilde’s lovers, Ross was captivated by the young artist’s originality and urged him to develop his craft further.


The Rise of Aestheticism 

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Isolde by Aubrey Beardsley, 1899, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London; with Black Cape by Aubrey Bearsley, 1894, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Fascinated by French novels and Restoration Drama of the era, Aubrey Beardsley accomplished his first drawings as interpretations of the texts he read. It was in his teenage years that his unique style started to form. He could not avoid falling for Aestheticism, the rising movement that conquered British design, painting, and architecture. Promoting a new kind of beauty unrestrained by political squabbles and outdated morals, the Aesthetic Movement strove to create “art for art’s sake.” It sought and endorsed visual delight and sensual pleasures. For Beardsley, his interest in the movement coincided with his attempts to imitate the famous Pre-Raphaelite painters. They were on the rise by the time the young insurance clerk discovered London in the company of Mabel, his sister, and Robert Ross.


The Aesthetic Movement did not make moral points but nonetheless shocked spectators with its ingenuity and sheer audacity of expression. In the best fashion of the movement, most Pre-Raphaelite artists demonstrated the eccentricity that appealed to the young illustrator. After all, it was Dante Gabriel Rosetti who dug out the deceased love of his life buried with a tome of his poems in order to reclaim them. If Beardsley truly inherited something from the Pre-Raphaelites, it was his taste for the scandalous and the romantic.


A Romantic Introduction To Art Nouveau

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Illustration for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur, Sir Launcelot and the Witch Hellawes by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894; with Illustration for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, The lady of the Lake telleth Arthur of the Sword Excalibur by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894, via University of Rochester


While Robert Ross was one of the first people whom the future Art Nouveau star met in London, he was not the last nor the most influential. When Sir Edward Burne-Jones discovered Beardsley, his career took off. The young man unexpectedly received praise from one of the leading painters and designers of his time, who went out of his way to help the artist. Owing much to the famed Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Burne-Jones started supporting Aubrey Beardsley, who soon received his first commission. The young painter was chosen to illustrate Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, acquiring a unique opportunity to prove his skill.


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The Peacock Skirt by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893 (published in 1907), via Royal Academy of Arts, London


The limited edition of Le Morte D’Arthur from the fifteenth century appeared with elaborate woodcut ornamentation and vellum binding. Nineteen-year-old Beardsley was picked as an illustrator thanks to his talent, Burne-Jones’ recommendation, and the publishers’ stingy nature: the young man was ready to invest a lot of work into intricate designs for a small amount of money. How could any savvy publisher dismiss such an opportunity? Young Arthur Beardsley’s zeal exceeded even the wildest expectations of his employers. For Le Morte D’Arthur, Beardsley produced 360 full and double-page drawings, all of which bear a striking resemblance to Pre-Raphaelite depictions of medieval beauty and surprise the viewer with their grotesque details, vivid facial expressions, and monochromatic color schemes.


Following the success of his illustrations in Le Morte D’Arthur, Beardsley dedicated himself almost entirely to design and illustration. He soon started contributing drawings to various art magazines of his time, including the famous Yellow Book, which gained its name from the notorious yellow covers of controversial French novels (Zola’s Nana, Beardsley’s favorite, for example, was one of such scandalous French novels). Fairly soon, the Yellow Book hired Aubrey Beardsley as its art editor.


Oscar Wilde’s Salome 

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The Climax, for Salome by Oscar Wilde by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894 (included for the first time in the 1907 publication), via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Oscar Wilde discovered Beardsley’s talent after seeing Beardsley’s work in the Yellow Book and asked him to illustrate his drama, Salome. Beardsley’s drawings for Salome displayed delicate gradations of tones and explored much more disturbing themes than most of his previous works. The Climax, the famous image of Salome caressing the severed head of John the Baptist with a dark fascination that borders on desire, sparked a lot of controversial reactions from critics and amateurs alike. However, compared to the sexualized drawings rejected by the publishers, the canonical variant does not seem that obscene. Famous for his swooping lines and exaggerated depiction of emotion, Beardsley drew inspiration from Japanese woodblocks as well as the pseudo-medieval imagery associated with pre-Raphaelites.


Since Wilde’s text alone was considered audacious and thought-provoking, it required an illustrator who could match this energy. Beardsley, who had previously illustrated Lucian’s Vera Historia, was eager to contribute to the most salacious and brilliant texts, exposing both sin and virtue and doing so uniquely and creatively. His work was a success through scandal. Beardsley himself could not have been happier with the outcome.


To clarify his thoughts, the artist wrote: “People hate to see their vices depicted, but vice is terrible, and it should be depicted.” In the vein of most Art Nouveau adepts, Beardsley could not help but admire the combination of the terrible and the beautiful that defined human life. Unfortunately for the illustrator, the vigilant society did not always share his ideas.


The Obscene And The Scary

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Lysistrata Haranguing the Athenian Women by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894 (printed and published c. 1929), via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


In 1895, Beardsley’s career suffered a major setback. When Oscar Wilde was charged with indecency for his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, everyone associated with Wilde, including the young illustrator, became a persona non-grata. Beardsley lost his job as an art editor of the Yellow Book and soon became penniless. Additionally, his overly romantic and close relationship with his sister was far more scandalous to society than any claims about possible homosexual connections. However, the case of Wilde was what primarily damaged Aubrey Beardsley’s career. Beardsley was indeed fascinated by sexuality but preferred theory to practice.


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A Night Piece by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The artist never concealed his interest in desire. He studied it with scholarly precision, and his provocative work shocked the public. His illustrations of the Greek Comedy Lysistrata showcased the absurdity of war and the triumph of lust. The women depicted, who refused to have sex with their husbands in order to stop the war between Athens and Sparta, come alive as voluptuous and scary figures in Beardsley’s illustrations. If the artist wanted to shock and amuse, he surely achieved his goal.


Beardsley’s illustrations do not cultivate and promote obscenities but rather investigate various hidden and dangerous desires. His lithograph, A Night Piece, for example, shows a mysterious woman, possibly a prostitute, walking down a street with a black ribbon tied around her pale throat. For a society obsessed with sexuality and the forbidden, its puritanical treatment of Beardsley’s illustrations seemed hypocritical at best and damaging at worst. Untouched by outdated moral constraints, Beardsley dared to depict these societal contradictions that drove him insane. True to his eccentric nature, Beardsley never stopped proclaiming the indecency of many of his images. With his health worsening and tuberculosis taking its toll on the artist’s body, he had nothing to lose and a lot of frustration to vent.


Aubrey Beardsley: A Life Cut Short

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The Cave of Spleen, illustration made for Alexander’s Pope The Rape of the Lock by Aubrey Beardsley, 1897, via Royal Academy of Arts, London


Beardsley’s pictorial style flourished whenever he illustrated texts that had a lot to mock and expose. Thus, his illustrations of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock gained him the praise of even some of his biggest critics, including American artist James McNeill Whistler. Whistler, one of the most popular painters of the time, acknowledged Beardsley as a true artist of a unique style and mind. As an aethereal dandy with long hands and gangly limbs, Beardsley was one of the people who turned even his illness into an aesthetic, his morbidly pale face and sickly constitution becoming the artist’s mark. He could breathe new life into literary pieces and shock his contemporaries, but sadly, he could not do much to improve his health.


In 1897, Beardsley moved to the French Riviera, embarking upon a new project. His goal was to illustrate the Jacobean drama Volpone by Ben Johnson. He was dealing with another text with a picturesque character with endless faults and a peculiar attitude. However, although his illustrations remain, the artist himself did not.


Arthur Beardsley died in Menton in May 1898 at the age of twenty-five. Before his death, Beardsley unexpectedly converted to Catholicism and went as far as to ask his friend Herbert Pollitt to destroy his obscene drawings. Pollitt, enamored with decadent art, never did so. In the end, Beardsley’s drawings remained as heralds of the Art Nouveau style that idealized a peculiar and imitated nature that never shied away from sensual pleasures.


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Venus Between Terminal Gods by Aubrey Beardsley, 1895, via Art Renewal Center, Port Reading


Beardsley’s influence on modern art cannot be underestimated. From Picasso to Klimt, artists emulated his eroticism and his unusual and vivid images. Beardsley, however, was an artist whose legacy is far more varied than just salacious drawings. His Venus Between Terminal Gods is a crafty imitation of medieval imagery and Japanese lithographs. His illustrations for Lysistrata, on the other hand, are both erotic and frighteningly vivid with none of the Pre-Raphaelite Romanticism. What Beardsley did during his short life was to pave a way that would go on to inspire generations of modern artists. His explicit imagination set a new standard for graphic design and reinterpreted the idea of the cohabitation of text and painting, showing how the two can complement each other.


“It takes only one man to make an artist, but forty to make an Academician,” Beardsley wrote, defining his own impact in art. After all, he was one man whose eccentric nature and love for the grotesque changed the art and aesthetics of his time.


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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.