Monday, 1 November 2010

The Graphically Sinuous Art of Aubrey Beardsley

No language is rude that can boast polite writers.”
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That most famous and infamous aesthete of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde, described him as having "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass-green hair." Poet, author, illustrator and artist, Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton, England, in August of 1872. He is perhaps best known for his distinctly stark and grotesquely perverse erotic images, done in ink. And, for a time at least, for his close friendship with Oscar Wilde.

I have one aim - the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.”
Self Portrait
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His most controversial works of art were through his association with Oscar Wilde - specifically, his illustrations for Salome. Wilde's tragic play Salome, first published in French in 1893, but was not performed until 1896, at Paris's Comedie-Parisienne  -  by then, Wilde was in prison at Reading Gaol for having had homosexual relations with Lord Alfred Douglas. Earlier on, it had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain's office in 1892 on the grounds that it was illegal to depict biblical themes on the stage. The play was not published in English until 1894, fully illustrated, as in the French version, by Beardsley. 

His illustrative style and composition are deceptively simple, relying on purity of line.  He masterfully used the contrast between the blackness of the ink against the whiteness of the paper to create the mood and the effect he desired, both of which were helped by his minute attention to detail - exquisite in its delicate fineness. Beardsley's curvilinear illustrations possess the organic, quintessential  eloquence of Art Nouveau. He also put his ink to portraits and was adept at caricature, creating political cartoons of the politicians of his day for that purpose.

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Early on in his career, he was heavily impressed by the Pre-Raphaelite movement (which took its cue from mythological, medieval and Renaissance art), then in vogue in England, in the form of the two distinguished artists of the genre: Edward Burne-Jones and Dante G. Rossetti. Beardsley was  also influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Later on, he was more directly inspired by James M. Whistler; the influence of the sweeping lines of Japanese prints - at that time, imported Japanese artifacts and exports were the rage in England - and the overall fluidity of Japonisme, are evident in his later works as well. His talent as an illustrator were displayed in various literary works and publications: books, poems, plays and magazines. It has also been suggested that photography, then a burgeoning art form in its own right, also had its influence on Beardsley.

Having contracted tuberculosis (commonly known as consumption in the 19th century) at an early age - an untreatable disease in those days - Aubrey knew that he would not live a long life. He did indeed die young, as he knew he would: at the age of 25 at Menton, France, in March, 1898. (Sources:, 2005;, 2010) 


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John & Salome
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The Three Musicians
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La Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard
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Design for the front cover of Pierrot


Left: The Death of Pierrot | Right: The Baron's Prayer

Left: The Rape of the Lock | Right: The Savoy

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Oscar Wilde

Cover for The Rape of the Lock
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Design for a tailpiece - 'FIN'
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The Peacock Skirt
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The Stomach Dance
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Left: The Toilette of Salome | Right: The Black Cape
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The Toilette of Salome
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Left: The Platonic Lament | Right: The Eyes of Herod
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The Man and the Satyr

Left: Edgar Allan Poe | Right: Salome

Lady of the Lake
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Salome on the Settee
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The Rose of Lima
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Book Plate
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The Woman in the Moon - the frontispiece for Salome
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Left: The Lady With the Monkey | Right: The Mask of Red Death

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Left: Siegfried | Right: The Neophyte and How The Black Art Was Revealed Unto Him

Left: The Kiss of Judas

Title page ornament for Yellow Book
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The Black Cat
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Left: The Slippers of Cinderella | Right: The Dream

Left: The Abbe from Under the Hill | Right: The fourth tableau from Das Rheingold 

Left: Ave Atque Vale - Catullus | Right: Madame Rejane
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"They're Little Boys and Girls"

The Wagnerites
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The above four videos are courtesy of: yakovsmirnov55 ~ YouTube


Suggested readings:


Salome: A Tragedy In One Act (1967), by Oscar Wilde & Aubrey Beardsley: Courier Dover Publications 

Best Works of Aubrey Beardsley (1990), by Aubrey Beardsley: Courier Dover Publications 

Aubrey Beardsley (1998), by Andrew Lambirth: Brockhampton Press

Aubrey Beardsley (1998), by Stephen Calloway: Harry N. Abrams

Aubrey Beardsley: A Slave to Beauty (1998), by David Colvin: Welcome Rain

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography (1999), by Matthew Sturgis: Overlook Press

Beardsley's 'Le Morte D'Arthur' (2001), by Aubrey Beardsley: Courier Dover Publications 


  1. Hi, I know this is a really old post, but I'm a bit of an amateur expert on Beardsley, and I wondered if you are claiming that all those works are by him? Most of them are, but the belly dancer and "remorse" are two really famous fakes, and some of the others - like those from the John Coulthardt site - I suspect are merely inspired by him, they are definitely not his work though. Thought I'd let you know.

    1. Dear Rhiannon:

      Thank you for your insightful comment (as well as your expertise - amateur or otherwise). I am not a Beardsley expert by any means (I merely have a great fascination with & admiration for his work), & I naturally assumed that the works found (& displayed here) were by his hand. I appreciate your correction, however - as a "perpetual student," I am always open to learning something new; I also welcome constructive criticism when it is well-founded (& tactfully put). Be assured that your observation is well received.

      That said, I shall leave the works that you referred to here & allow the viewers to read your comment & refer back to the aforementioned works for themselves; it's a good learning lesson for us all. Thank you once more.

      With sincere appreciation,
      ₵. Ð.