Progression of Art
How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink
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.
The Woman in the Moon, Frontispiece for Salomé
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
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
The Black Cat
Beardsley produced this illustration for one of Edgar Allan Poe's darkest tales by the same name. Poe was an important literary figure for Symbolist and Decadents artists fascinated with ghoulish, gothic tales. In Poe's The Black Cat (1893) a cat, having been cruelly mistreated by its owner, the narrator, retaliates by biting him. Enraged, its owner gouges out its eye and eventually hangs his pet. When he comes across a similarly colored cat, pictured here by Beardsley, the narrator becomes agitated and, in a fit of rage, accidentally kills his wife instead of his intended target. He conceals his wife behind a cellar wall, unknowingly trapping the cat there as well. Police locate the body of his wife only upon hearing the cat, perched atop the deceased's head, wailing loudly from behind a brick wall. Beardsley's strikingly distilled design complements the dark content. Thin, sinuous lines delineate the elegant creature from the darkness surrounding it. Beardsley accentuates the cat's sharp claw and accusing eye that so haunted the narrator as a living reminder of his abusiveness. Poe referred to the black cat, forever at his heels as, "an incarnate nightmare that I had no power to shake off - incumbent eternally upon my heart!"
A quintessential example of Beardsley's early style, The Black Cat consists of large swaths of black and white areas delineated by basic outlines and almost entirely void of decorative details. The black cat is a diabolic beauty that was symbolic of superstition in folk tales, a key motif representing night, danger, and sexual desire in art, and an important symbol in the works of Baudelaire, who hugely influenced a number of modern movements. Interestingly, in 1910, Futurist painter Gino Severini also created a work under the same title.
The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia
Avenue Theatre Poster
Beardsley created this, his first color lithograph poster, for the Avenue Theatre in London, which featured two plays at the time: A Comedy of Sighs (1894) by John Todhunter and The Land of Hearts Desire(1894) by William Butler Keats. Doubling as a program cover illustration, the design shows a simply dressed young woman partially veiled behind two nearly transparent curtains adorned with light green spots. She peers out from behind the curtains as an actress on stage. The green on the curtains is echoed in the Asian calligraphic text right of the figure, which serves a practical function by providing the cast list and price for each performance.
The poster was a sensation. At the time, the relationship between posters, public advertisements, and fine art was a topic of debate, with Beardsley at the forefront. Reflecting upon Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's poster art and his own ambitions do accomplish something similar in England, Beardsley set out his theory on art and advertising in "The Art of the Hoarding" (1894). In his essay, the artist argued that, "advertisement is an absolute necessity of modern life." According to Beardsley, ads should be beautiful as well as understood by the general public. His posters, as well as his convictions about commercial design, were practical and beautiful, helping to revolutionize poster advertising.
Color Lithograph - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Death of Pierrot - The Savoy
In this illustration of the deathbed of Pierrot the clown for The Savoy magazine in London, Beardsley depicts what he described as "strange hermaphroditic characters wandering about in Pierrot costume." Characteristic of the Decadent notion that life is a performance; here the artist creates a theatrical atmosphere. The death-white face of Pierrot resigned to his bed, his clothes cast aside on a nearby chair, is visited by the lively, tip-toeing characters of Arlecchino, Pantaleone, Il Dottore, and Columbina. The intricately detailed masquerade costumes of these latter figures, their exaggerated posturing, and their attempt to implicate the viewer with their shushing gesture lends a humorous quality to an otherwise solemn scene.
The figure of Pierrot, a sad pantomime clown who pines for love, was popular among the early modernists, and appeared in works by Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Verlaine, among others. Pierrot was a popular figure for so many because his identity was malleable. For the Decadents, Pierrot represented their disillusionment with Kantean idealism; Symbolists sympathized with his suffering and sensitivity; while others used him in their quests to explore form, line, and color. The downtrodden Pierrot appeared more than once in Beardsley's work, including his illustrations for poet Ernest Dowson's Pierrot of the Minute (1897), in which the clown is obsessively associated with the color white and portrayed as pale, sad, and alone. In this image, the clown displays a poignant knowledge of his own death - a reflection perhaps of the artist's own perceived mortality. Indeed, at the time Beardsley created this, his health was fading. Increasingly bedridden and unable to work, Beardsley suffered from consumption for two more years until he died at age 25.
Illustrated Magazine - The Savoy, 6
Venus at her Toilette
This illustration appears in Beardsley's own writing, Under the Hill (1896), an erotic novel derived from the legend of Venus and Tannhauser. Initially published in parts by The Savoy, Under the Hill was to be issued in book form, but Beardsley never finished it. Beardsley's rendering depicts a lady's toilette, a private ritual during which a woman primps herself in anticipation of appearing in society. Here, in Venus's court, eroticism and sensuality reign supreme. Beardsley's illustration, so full of hedonistic activities, nicely compliments his almost manic, hyper-stimulating text.
Stylistically distinct from his earlier work, Venus at her Toilette is an intricately detailed composition that relies on line, texture, pattern, and tonal gradation. Gone are the large inked areas or wide blank spaces. Instead, greys offer more tonal variation, while also suggesting a depth missing from his earlier strictly two-dimensional compositions. This characteristic combined with highly decorative patterning to render an erotic subject is typical of Beardsley's later Art Nouveau style. More than an artful illustration and befitting his Symbolist interests, here Beardsley also satirizes Victorian polite society, excessive consumerism, and the veneration of artificial beauty. As such, the image is exemplary of Decadent pessimism that grew out of fin de siecle concerns regarding the economic and authoritative decline of Great Britain.
Illustrated Book - Under the Hill
Similar to the Dürer engravings Beardsley admired, The Abbe shows subtle tonal variations between black and white so that pure white portions pop and jet-black areas recede more so than in his earlier illustrations. Originally titled Abbe Aubrey, the central figure appears distorted, not unlike figures in the artist's earlier work. A small head rests atop billowing theatrical clothes. The figure appears inundated by intricately rendered flora that includes a pixy or fairy at top left.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London suggests that Beardsley's ornate foliage may have been influenced by prints that appeared in the Memoir of Edward Calvert (1893), a copy of which was given to the artist by his friend Robert Ross. Beardsley's own words from Under the Hill brilliantly evoke the atmosphere of his later drawings that showcase an unreal, theatrical, and above all, macabre world: "The place where he stood waved drowsily with strange flowers, heavy with perfume, dripping with odours.... Huge moths, so richly winged they must have banqueted upon tapestries and royal stuffs, slept on the pillars that flanked either side of the gateway, and the eyes of all the moths remained open and were burning and bursting with a mesh of veins." This and other illustrations for Under the Hill firmly established Beardsley's later style as a combination of the Symbolist denial of realism and Art Nouveau's decorative arabesques, with Decadent pessimistic hedonism.
Illustrated Manuscript, Under the Hill - Victoria and Albert Museum