British Illustrator and Author
Brighton, Sussex, England
Summary of Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley's artistic career was remarkably impactful for its brevity. In the seven years he was able to draw and write before succumbing to tuberculosis, Beardsley developed a reputation as one of the most controversial artists of his time. The linear elegance of his designs coupled with the artist's bizarre sense of humor and fascination with the grotesque and taboo simultaneously intrigued and repelled his Victorian audience. His illustrations comprised characteristics of Aestheticism, Decadence, Symbolism, and, most apparently, Art Nouveau. Beardsley's block prints allowed his work to be easily reproduced and widely circulated. The diabolic beauty of his work and its overwhelming presence in English publishing houses meant that Beardsley quickly became the most influential draftsman of his time.
- More than mere illustrations, Beardsley's images captured the mood of the accompanying text, while aggressively critiquing repressive Victorian concepts of sexuality, beauty, gender roles, and consumerism.
- Beardsley's poster art and essay, "The Art of the Hoarding" (1894) changed how the public thought about art and advertising. The two, according to the artist, were not mutually exclusive. His theatre posters manifested his theory and helped revolutionize poster production in Europe and America.
- Beardsley borrowed aspects from various artistic movements and adapted them to suit his own purposes. He appropriated the Decadent themes of decay, death, and eroticism to shock viewers out of their complacency; while his delicately interlacing forms and sinuous arabesque lines make his work important in marking the visual shift from the Aesthetic movement to the modern Art Nouveau style.
- In addition to his illustrations, Beardsley also composed poems and prose. His later writings were as Decadent as his pictures. Beardsley is best known for Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic novel about Venus and Tannhauser, for which he created the text as well as the accompanying illustrations.
Biography of Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an artistic and musical prodigy from an early age. Born to a father who preferred to squander his inheritance rather than adopt a trade, Beardsley's creative prowess helped stave off complete destitution. At age 12 he and his older sister Mabel (who would later become an actress) performed musical duets in a public concert. A witty child with a wicked sense of humor, Beardsley drew caricatures of his grammar school teachers and by age 14 had published his first poem, "The Valiant," as well as a series of sketches titled "The Jubilee Cricket Analysis" in the school's magazine, Past and Present.
Important Art by Aubrey Beardsley
Produced for Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, this illustration was one of many that helped tell the author's interpretation of the story of King Arthur, so beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites. The image refers to Tristram and Isolde's doomed love story, which predates and likely influenced the romantic tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Beardsley depicts the couple as androgynous figures separated by a decorative pillar that bifurcates the composition. The flowers within the picture framing and adorning its border seem ready to burst, suggesting fertile ripeness or perhaps foretelling the blossoming of something more sinister.
Although the book was considered only moderately successful at the time, it has since been dubbed Beardsley's first masterpiece and is credited with popularizing his unique early style that blended a simplified interpretation of textile designer William Morris's medieval floral patterns, Pre-Raphaelite romance, and the darker Decadent themes of sex and death. This drawing is not only an early example of the intersection of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau; it was also a social critique. Beardsley's androgynous figures challenged established Victorian gender roles and traditional concepts of sexuality. His illustrations for Le Morte D'Arthur were the last created in his early style and were followed by his mature work in which the influence of the Japanese aesthetic is more evident.
This work was created for Salomé, Oscar Wilde's book based on his own play. Inspired by the murderous biblical femme fatale who killed John the Baptist, Wilde's Salomé was condemned as blasphemous. Beardsley's illustrations took this offense to a new level, poking fun not only at repressive Victorian society, but also at the posturing of Wilde himself. Here, a naked man (Page of Herodias) stands protectively in front of a robed man (Narraboth) and gazes apprehensively at the moon on the horizon. In Wilde's rendition of Salomé, both characters fall victim to unrequited love. The Page loves Narraboth; while Narraboth loves Salomé. Standing on Narraboth's robe, the Page attempts to shield them both from the gaze of the moon. In the text, Wilde alludes to the magical power of the moon to hold sway over human moods. Beardsley plays with this idea by depicting the (wo)man in the Moon as the author, Oscar Wilde, who indeed literally controls his characters. The cartoon moon-face seems fat and droopy, similar to other mocking portraits Beardsley created of Wilde that poked fun at his pretensions.
Beardsley has been accused of composing drawings for Salomé that were unrelated to the actual text, but this is not the case. Adopting the Symbolist principle of representing rather than showing something, Beardsley worked to convey a distinct mood or progressive idea related to Wilde's text. By inserting the Page and Narraboth into the frontispiece, a space traditionally reserved for representing the general theme of a text, Beardsley highlights the homosexual passions alluded to throughout the book. The moon's association with Wilde, whose sexual preference was well known, and the inclusion of a carnation left of the moon, worn as an indication of homosexuality at the time, further underscores this theme of same-sex passions, abhorred by conservative Victorian society. In true Symbolist form, Beardsley created illustrations that addressed key social issues beyond Wilde's book. In this sense, the artist accomplished more than merely realizing the text through pictures, as other illustrators did. He used this platform to critique repressive Victorian values.
Created by Beardsley for Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1894), this illustration shows the protagonist wrapped in a long, flowing garment embroidered with designs reminiscent of peacock feathers. Indeed a peacock hovers at the left while Salomé looms threateningly over the young man so enamoured of her, as though posed to seduce and devour him. Effeminately rendered, the man's legs visible beneath his cloak belie his gender. This image appears in the book alongside seemingly unrelated text: soldiers discuss noise emitting from a banquet hall; while the young man describes Salomé's beauty.
In many of his illustrations for Salomé, Beardsley challenges Victorian concepts of sexuality and gender roles. But the modern notion of the "New Woman" is perhaps most clearly evident in The Peacock Skirt. Contrary to the Victorian notion of the passive and subordinate female, here Beardsley depicts Salomé as self-possessed, sexually charged, and, most appallingly, dominant. The title of the drawing and the peacock decor may be in reference to dialogue in the following pages in which Herod offers Salomé a gift of peacocks. This not withstanding, Beardsley's rendering is most certainly influenced by James Abbott McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room, which the artist so greatly admired. Indicative of Beardsley's mature style, this image speaks to the artist's fascination with the Japanese aesthetic - an interest he shared with Whistler and other late-19th-century painters. This characteristic combined with flowing, arabesque lines, strict two-dimensionality, and decorative patterns, make The Peacock Skirt a superb example of early Art Nouveau.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Aubrey Beardsley
- Aubrey Beardsley: A BiographyOur PickBy Matthew Sturgis
- Aubrey BeardsleyBy Stephen Calloway
- The Best of Aubrey BeardsleyBy Kenneth Clark
- Beardsley and Victorian Sexual PoliticsOur PickBy Linda Gertner Zatlin
- Aubrey Beardsley's Erotic UniverseBy Derek Stanford
- The Picture of Dorian GrayBy Oscar Wilde
- The Yellow Book - A SelectionOur PickBy Viking Press
- Decadent LondonBy Anthony Clayton
- Collected LettersOur PickBy Aubrey Beardsley
- A Book of Fifty DrawingsBy Aubrey Beardsley
- Sex and Sexuality in the 19th CenturyOur PickBy Jan Marsh / Victoria and Albert Museum Blog
- Illustrating Wilde: An Examination of Aubrey Beardsley's interpretation of SaloméOur PickBy Yelena Primorac / Victorian Web / 27 April, 2009
- Aubrey Beardsley's Macabre Illustrations of Edgar Allan PoeOpen Culture / September, 2015
- Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations for The Rape of the LockReading University Blog / July, 2013
- The Decadent Movement in LiteratureBy Arthur Symons
- He Behaved Awfully WeirdlyBy Matthew Sweet / The Independent / 15 March 1998
- Aubrey Beardsley's Under the HillOnline Text