35 Chapter 11 – Aubrey Beardsley

Art Nouveau

Spencer Beaudoin

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Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax from the illustrations for Salomé, 1893-4

Art is an expression that allows artists to visualize unique ideas and produce works that are appreciated for their beauty. Aubrey Beardsley’s art became eminent in the 19th century when he was inspired by Japanese woodcuts, the grotesque and the erotic which helped him develop his style. Beardsley was a controversial artist during the Art Nouveau Era because his artwork displayed erotic illustrations that were deemed unacceptable to some. Bridget Elliot claims that the females that were drawn “challenged middle-class feminine ideals of the dependent wife and mother.”[1] Some of Beardsley’s more perverse art is what led to him becoming a recognized artist. Beardsley featured naked people along with large dark areas of contrast which is how his work can be recognized.  The majority of his artwork is done in ink against a white background that develops a deep contrast. Beardsley’s art challenged norms in his time by expressing his art in a sexual manner and suggesting vices, making him a controversial artist.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1893

Prior to Beardsley’s fame in the art community he participated in art classes to enhance his natural skills. Beardsley began to push the boundaries of his art which is described as “sharp [and] elegant”[2] in Sasha Dovzhyk’s ‘Review of Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain.’ Dovzhyk describes Beardsley’s accumulation of followers from countries such as Germany and China as “The Beardsley Craze.”[3] I argue that Beardsley’s following not only encouraged him to push his boundaries, but figure out where his interests lie. Illustrations such as The Peacock Skirt and The Stomach Dance are prime examples of Beardsley incorporating sexuality and Japanese culture into his drawings. The Peacock Skirt is one of Beardsley’s more famous illustrations and it challenges sexuality and gender roles because the piece shows a dominant woman intimidating a Syraian boy. The sexually driven woman is trying to seduce and eventually devour the man with her great presence. The woman has subtle Japanese features which is something Beardsley has been influenced by in his art. This illustration is Beardsley’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Journalist Nicole Fluhr claims that “Salomé made [Beardsley] famous and linked his reputation to that of Oscar Wilde, whose arrest two months later cost Beardsley his job as art editor for The Yellow Book.”[4] 

Aubrey Beardsley, The Stomach Dance, 1893-4

Beardsley’s illustration The Stomach Dance, portrays a woman dancing which is shown using a variation of swirls and curved lines. She has an ambiguous body that is open to interpretation. The woman appears to have Japanese facial features which is something Beardsley incorporates into many of his illustrations. The woman appears indifferent as the creature strums its instrument as if it is luring her into the water. With regard to Wilde, it is argued that he “was arrested for gross indecency (that is, homosexuality) in 1895, and imprisoned, following his famous trial, shortly thereafter.”[5] Perhaps Beardsley was making a statement by continuing to produce art that was deemed sexualized and queer so that he could support Wilde and his lifestyle by incorporating these elements into his art.

One’s image in the art community can take years to build and seconds to shatter. The 19th century was a time where people were pressured to live traditional lifestyles and stay in between the lines. Beardsley was cut from a different cloth, meaning he was an advocate for alternative lifestyles which he expressed through his art. Donald S. Olson believes that Beardsley “battled for artistic freedom in a world of stultifying conventions and condemnations.”[6] That being said, I maintain that although Beardsley was “fighting against the narrowmindedness of a public”[7] while confronting his own truth. Beardsley’s sexuality remains in question, however, “His conversion to Roman Catholicism is another indication that he was struggling with issues of faith and redemption.”[8] During this time Beardsley had his “obscene drawings [destroyed]”[9] which suggests that he was uncomfortable with his beliefs pertaining to sexuality. In short, I believe that Beardsley had the desire to get rid of his sexually suggestive illustrations because the way society saw him had a greater impact on him than living his truth. Olson Claims that the “public that knows nothing about art except how to destroy it,”[10] which adds to my argument that Beardsley’s artistic legacy needed to coincide with what the public believed so he could thrive as an artist.

The artists that we remember are the ones who made an impact in the art community and colour outside the lines. Juliana F. Duque proposes that Beardsley’s art “brought a fresh and rebellious intensity.”[11] Beardsley’s art faced many critics, however, he used his art to express inequalities. He was concerned about social issues such as “the inequities and hypocrisies of Victorian society.”[12] Specifically, the illustration “The Climax” features a woman staring into the eyes of a severed head while asserting dominance over him. This symbolizes the power of “femme fatale.”[13] Lots of Beardsley’s illustrations demonstrate women freely expressing their gender. These women are empowered and are typically larger than the men to show their dominance. Beardsley portrayed men in his artwork to be struggling for power and lusting for wealth. He shows men corrupting each other intellectually which led to him facing criticism. Beardsley defended his art in the statement “People hate to see their darting vices depicted [but] vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”[14] Beardsley is a highly recognized artist who not only produces visually pleasing illustrations, he also seeps his art with his political views.

With regard to Beardsley’s illustrations and place in the art community it is safe to say that his art challenged norms and reflected his personal beliefs in relation to gender. The majority of Beardsley’s artwork suggests vices and reflects dominance which is why his work is seen as controversial. Beardsley’s illustrations are bold and show deep contrasts which is how his art can be identified. I believe his openness towards gender and sexuality can be appreciated more in the 21st century than the 19th century because we live in a society that is far more accepting to lifestyles. He demonstrates his intellectual side by portraying his political beliefs in his illustrations which adds a bold flavour to the artwork. Sexuality is something that is to be celebrated which is exactly what Beardsley demonstrated in his art.

Aubrey Beardsley, John the Baptist and Salome, 1893-4



Dovzhyk, Sasha. “Review of Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain.” Open Library of Humanities 19, no. 30 (2020): 1-7.  Accessed October 5, 2020. https://19.bbk.ac.uk/article/id/2942/.

Duque, Juliana F. “Spaces in Time: The Influence of Aubrey Beardsley on Psychedelic Graphic Design.” Hart, no. 5 (2019): 15–38. Accessed October 5, 2020. doi:10.25025/hart05.2019.02.

Elliott, Bridget. “New and Not So “New Women” on the London Stage: Aubrey Beardsley’s “Yellow Book” Images of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Réjane.” Victorian Studies 31, no. 1 (1987): 33-57. Accessed October 9, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828061.

Flur, Nicole. “Queer Reverence: Aubrey Beardsley’s Venus and Tannhäuser.” Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, no. 90 (2019): 1-35. Accessed October 5, 2020. doi:10.4000/cve.6482.

Meis, Morgan. “The Faith Behind Aubrey Beardsley’s Sexually Charged Art.” The New Yorker, no. 1 (2016): 1-9. Accessed October 5, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-faith-behind-aubrey-beardsleys-sexually-charged-art.

Olson, Donald S. “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley.” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, no. 27 (2020): 1-20. Accessed October 5, 2020. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.ardc.talonline.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.629605826&site=eds-live.

Smith, Erin. “The Art of Aubrey Beardsley: A Fin De Siecle Critique of Victorian Society.” The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, (2005): 1-114. http://people.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1992-3/smith-e.htm.

  1. Bridget Elliot, "New and Not So "New Women" on the London Stage: Aubrey Beardsley's "Yellow Book" Images of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Réjane," Victorian Studies, no.1 (2020): 2.
  2. Sasha Dovzhyk, “Review of Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain.” Open Library of Humanities 19, no. 30 (2020): 1.
  3. Dovzhyk, “Review of Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain” 1.
  4. Nicole Fluhr,  “'Queer Reverence': Aubrey Beardsley's Venus and Tannhäuser.” Cahiers Victoriens et Édouardiens, no. 90 (2019): 1.
  5. Morgan Meis, “The Faith Behind Aubrey Beardsley's Sexually Charged Art,” The New Yorker, no. 1 (2020): 3.
  6. Donald S. Olson, “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley,” The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, no. 27 (2020): 17.
  7. Olson, “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley” 17.
  8. Olson, “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley” 17.
  9. Olson, “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley” 7.
  10. Olson, “The Fall of Aubrey Beardsley” 17.
  11. Juliana F. Duque,  “Spaces in Time: The Influence of Aubrey Beardsley on Psychedelic Graphic Design,” Hart, no. 5 (2019): 15.
  12. Duque, “Spaces in Time: The Influence of Aubrey Beardsley on Psychedelic Graphic Design” 15. 
  13. Duque, “Spaces in Time: The Influence of Aubrey Beardsley on Psychedelic Graphic Design” 15. 
  14. Erin Smith, “The Art of Aubrey Beardsley: A Fin De Siecle Critique of Victorian Society,” Victorian Studies 31, no. 1 (2005): 4.


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Chapter 11 - Aubrey Beardsley Copyright © 2022 by Spencer Beaudoin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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