One of the most controversial artists of his time, Aubrey Beardsley is one of the most notable illustrators of the Art Nouveau movement. Born in 1872 in Brighton, England, Beardsley’s work is also associated with the Aestheticism movement, the British counterpart of the Symbolist movement in visual arts. Beardsley’s body of work is characteristically erotic and often denotes a Japanese influence.
In 1883, Beardsley’s family moved from Brighton to London. Early recognition of Beardsley’s artistic talents led to his enrollment in London’s Westminster School of Art. As Beardsley’s career progressed, he became associated with the controversial artist clique led by Oscar Wilde. Because Beardsley was frequently seriously ill having contracted tuberculosis at the age of nine, art historians believe Beardsley was likely asexual; however, one of Beardsley’s most infamous scandals suggests incest—it is generally thought that Beardsley impregnated his sister, a year his senior, who later miscarried. It is impossible to confirm this, but it attests to the uproar caused by his highly controversial work.
Beardsley’s most famous illustrations are from Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Salome by Oscar Wilde, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Ben Johnson’s Volpone, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, and The Bon Mots. His work for The Yellow Book produced many illustrations. Beardsley worked as The Yellow Book’s art editor for its first four editions. Primarily working with ink, Beardsley’s images often depict great detail juxtaposed with areas of blank space. Beardsley enhanced the field of illustration, which was often considered inferior to painting and sculpture, by creating illustrations that frequently outshined the accompanying text and sometimes conveyed his interpretation of the text.
The artist’s work caused considerable scandal due to its erotic and often pornographic nature. These works often depicted enlarged genitalia in scenes that might be shocking today, but were certainly so for Victorians. Nevertheless, Beardsley’s unique style allowed him to rise to the forefront of illustration. Illustrations such as “Isolde” convey the artist’s seemingly simplistic aesthetic, owning to the Japanese influence, but a depth of expression and sinister mood unmistakably showcase the Beardsley style. Art critics also hint at a French influence in Beardsley’s work, most notably from Manet and Monet.
Beardsley’s brilliant career was cut short by his death in 1898. Fatally suffering from tuberculosis, the artist traveled to the south of France for its better climate. He died in Menton, France on March 16th. Also noteworthy, Beardsley embraced Catholicism some time before his death prompting him to ask publishers to destroy his “obscene” illustrations—a request that was never granted.