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Artists Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley Photo

Aubrey Beardsley

British Illustrator and Author

Movements and Styles: Art Nouveau, Aesthetic Art, Decadent Movement

Born: August 21, 1872 - Brighton, Sussex, England

Died: March 16, 1898 - Menton, France

Aubrey Beardsley Timeline

Quotes

"An entirely new method of drawing and composition, words fail to describe the quality of the workmanship, the subjects were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic figures wandering about in Pierrot costumes, or modern dress, quite a new world of my own creation."
Aubrey Beardsley
"I have one aim - the grotesque. If I'm not grotesque I am nothing."
Aubrey Beardsley
"They were extremely fantastic in conception, but perfectly severe in execution."
Aubrey Beardsley
"Strange as it may seem I really draw folks as I see them. Surely it is not my fault that they fall into certain lines and angles."
Aubrey Beardsley
"Beauty is the most difficult of things."
Beardsley, quoted by WB Yeats
"The only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance."
Oscar Wilde about Beardsley
"The most startling appearance in these early nineties was certainly Aubrey Beardsley. I know no one in the whole history of art who made such an impression."
Frank Harris
"There is something macabre and tragic in the fact that one who added another terror to life should have died at the age of a flower."
Oscar Wilde
"The thin, isolated black lines which sweep so voluptuously across the white in some of Beardsley's most famous drawings are a tribute to the process block, which no other illustrator of the 1890s exploited quite so tellingly."
Anthony Clayton
"One of the most exalted results on penmanship in the history of art."
Brian Reade

"People hate to see their darting vices depicted [but] vice is terrible and it should be depicted."

Aubrey Beardsley Signature

Synopsis

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.

Key Ideas

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

Aubrey Beardsley Photo

Childhood

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 humour, 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.

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Aubrey Beardsley Biography Continues

Important Art by Aubrey Beardsley

The below artworks are the most important by Aubrey Beardsley - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink (1893-4)

How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink (1893-4)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Illustrated Book

The Woman in the Moon, Frontispiece for Salomé (1894)

The Woman in the Moon, Frontispiece for Salomé (1894)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Line block print on Japanese Vellum - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Peacock Skirt (1893)

The Peacock Skirt (1893)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Line black print on Japanese vellum - Victorian and Albert Museum, London

More Aubrey Beardsley Artwork and Analysis:



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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Aubrey Beardsley
Interactive chart with Aubrey Beardsley's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

William MorrisWilliam Morris
Henri de Toulouse-LautrecHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Personal Contacts

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde
James WhistlerJames Whistler

Movements

JaponismJaponism
Decadent MovementDecadent Movement
Aesthetic ArtAesthetic Art
The Pre-RaphaelitesThe Pre-Raphaelites
Art NouveauArt Nouveau

Influences on Artist
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Years Worked: 1891 - 1898
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Wassily KandinskyWassily Kandinsky
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Charles Rennie MackintoshCharles Rennie Mackintosh

Personal Contacts

Oscar WildeOscar Wilde

Movements

Art NouveauArt Nouveau
SymbolismSymbolism

Useful Resources on Aubrey Beardsley

Videos

Books

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography Recomended resource

By Matthew Sturgis

Aubrey Beardsley

By Stephen Calloway

The Best of Aubrey Beardsley

By Kenneth Clark

Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics Recomended resource

By Linda Gertner Zatlin

More Interesting Books about Aubrey Beardsley
Sex and Sexuality in the 19th Century Recomended resource

By Jan Marsh
Victoria and Albert Museum Blog

Illustrating Wilde: An Examination of Aubrey Beardsley's interpretation of Salomé Recomended resource

By Yelena Primorac
Victorian Web
27 April, 2009

Aubrey Beardsley's Macabre Illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe

Open Culture
September, 2015

Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations for The Rape of the Lock

Reading University Blog
July, 2013

More Interesting Articles about Aubrey Beardsley

transcripts

Aubrey Beardsley's Under the Hill

Online Text

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jen Farren

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Sandy McCain

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Farren
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Sandy McCain
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