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Beardsley, Aubrey (1872-1898)  

English decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley was a precocious talent who made a lasting contribution to the art of illustration. One of the greatest of the Symbolists and a master of pen and ink, Beardsley developed a highly original, formally elegant style, inspired in part by Greek vase painting, in which ornamental rhythm of line combines with a perverse and wickedly satiric imagination to create unforgettable images, often hilarious, frequently erotic, and sometimes deeply moving.

Beardsley was born on August 21, 1872 in Brighton, England into a genteel family, but one rendered nearly destitute by the incompetence of his businessman father. He was a musical and artistic prodigy, so his talent was obvious very early, but so was his ill health. He had his first attack of tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually kill him, at the age of nine. For the rest of his brief life, he was plagued by numerous illnesses and relapses.

He was educated at the Bristol Grammar School and later, with the encouragement of Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, attended night classes at the Westminster School of Art. Although he absorbed a number of influences, including that of the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley was largely self-taught.

In 1892, the young artist received his first commission, an invitation to illustrate an edition of Thomas Malory's Morte D'arthur for the publisher J. M. Dent. The assignment entailed over 300 illustrations and chapter heads, which the artist executed in a mock-medieval, Pre-Raphaelite style.

In 1893, as he was working on the Dent commission, he met Oscar Wilde, with whom he would be associated for the rest of his life, at least in the public's imagination. Wilde's Salome had just been published in French. Later that year, a new journal, The Studio, published an article on Beardsley by Joseph Pennell, accompanied by eight of the artist's drawings, including one inspired by Salome.

Wilde's publisher John Lane invited Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of the drama. When it was published in 1894, both the play and the witty, provocative--blatantly erotic--illustrations created a sensation.

That same year Beardsley became famous as the art editor of The Yellow Book, a new arts and letters periodical that Lane inaugurated. Although Wilde never actually contributed to the magazine, it was widely assumed to be an organ for the aesthetic ideas that the playwright espoused. Beardsley's stunning black-and-white drawings, title-pages, and covers helped make the new quarterly a great success.

But The Yellow Book also quickly became a site of the fin de siècle culture wars, a target of moralists concerned about the influence of the decadent movement on English society and art. One detractor described Beardsley's designs for the periodical as "Diseased, weird, macbre, and sinister."

In the context of the growing notoriety of Wilde and his circle, these descriptions may be seen as an attack on the newly visible homosexual subculture that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. The culture wars culminated in Wilde's prosecution and conviction for gross indecency in 1895 and his sentence to two years imprisonment at hard labor.

One casualty of the spirit of reaction precipitated by the Wilde trials of 1895 was Beardsley himself. He was summarily fired from his job as art editor of The Yellow Book. He had been too closely associated with Wilde for the publisher's comfort and his art too erotic and perverse for the new mood of conformity prompted by Wilde's conviction.

Ill and in financial straits, Beardsley accepted a job as a draftsman for Leonard Smithers' new quarterly, The Savoy. Smithers, a publisher of somewhat dubious reputation who dabbled in erotica, lacked the prestige of John Lane, but he proved to be a good friend to Beardsley.

The Savoy soon folded, but not until Beardsley had published in it both some extraordinarily intricate illustrations to Pope's mock-epic "The Rape of the Lock" and also his own highly erotic (but incomplete) tale "The Story of Venus and Tannhauser," probably inspired by the opera by Richard Wagner, whom Beardsley admired.

In his last years, despite his serious illness, Beardsley continued to work. He produced illustrations for Théophile Gautier's decadent novel Mademoiselle de Maupin and for Aristophanes' sexual comedy Lysistrata and a set of initials for an edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone. These designs are distinguished by the delicacy of their patterns. They comment less on the texts they purportedly illustrate than they satirize the foibles of Beardsley's own time.

In 1896, Smithers published a collection of Beardsley's pen and ink designs, A Book of Fifty Drawings, the first collection of the artist's work.

In his last months, Beardsley was sustained by the patronage of Smithers and the support of his friend Marc André Raffalovich, a Russian-born poet and theorist of homosexuality.

In search of a better climate, Beardsley traveled to the south of France in 1898. After converting to Roman Catholicism, he died in Mentone on March 16, 1898 at the age of 25.

Considering the brevity of his life, Beardsley's achievement is astonishing. A highly original creator, he transformed the art of illustration and profoundly influenced artists of his own and subsequent generations.

His expert draftsmanship made his drawings particularly suitable to the technical advances in printing at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps most important, however, he came to maturity at a time peculiarly suited to his genius, when theories of decadence and aestheticism gave license to the expression of perverse sexuality and to fetishism of all kinds.

His work is sexually frank and, occasionally, pornographic. Not only does he draw erect penises and stylized pubic hair and fetishize objects such as shoes and feathers, but he also depicts sexual obsession, lesbianism, sadomoaschism, and male homosexuality with a frankness and enthusiasm intended to shock and provoke.

Beardsley is preeminently a satirical artist, with a gift for caricature and grotesquerie. He deforms even as he aestheticizes and his art may best be seen as an attack on Victorian values.

Yet he also created revolutionary designs and images and patterns of surpassing beauty. His influence has been immense, and can be discerned especially in the stylized lines of Art Nouveau.

Claude J. Summers


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Decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley (top) often depicted grotesque scenes in a formally elegant style as in this illustration for Oscar Wilde's Salomé (above).
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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

literature >> Overview:  Decadence

Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

arts >> Overview:  Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male

Given the historic stigma around making, circulating, and possessing overtly homoerotic images, the visual arts have been especially important for providing a socially sanctioned arena for depicting the naked male body and suggesting homoerotic desire.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Nineteenth Century

Several artists and art critics of the nineteenth century achieved a self-aware homosexual identity that is expressed in both their lives and their works, but lesbianism is only rarely depicted in terms of identity during this period.

arts >> Overview:  Symbolists

The symbolist movement in painting and literature, which flourished in Europe from 1886 to 1905, was the first self-consciously queer movement in Western art history.

arts >> Overview:  Wagnerism

Concerned with the music, theoretical writings, political ideas, and aesthetics of the German composer Richard Wagner, Wagnerism had a profound influence on late nineteenth-century European culture, including the expression of same-sex desire.

arts >> Day, F. Holland

American intellectual publisher, aesthete, and photographer, F. Holland Day created homoerotic photographs notable for their relation to fin de siècle cultural interests.

arts >> Demuth, Charles

One of America's first modernist painters, Charles Demuth was also one of the earliest artists in this country to expose his gay identity through forthright, positive depictions of homosexual desire.

literature >> Jonson, Ben

Playwright and poet Ben Jonson was probably never himself involved in same-sex sexual relationships, but he deserves attention for his depictions of same-sex relationships in both dramatic and nondramatic works.

arts >> Raffalovich, Marc André

Russian-English poet and writer on sexuality, Marc André Raffalovich is best known today as a patron of the arts.

arts >> Ricketts, Charles (1866-1931), and Charles Shannon (1863-1937)

Versatile British artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were partners in life as well as in art; while pursuing independent careers, they also collaborated on a number of creative projects, including book design.

arts >> Wagner, Siegfried

Siegfried Wagner, the son of composer Richard Wagner, was himself a prolific composer and conductor; his bisexuality was the source of both scandal and also of elaborate attempts to erase it from histories of the Wagner family.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Brophy, Brigid. Beardsley and His World. New York: Harmony Books, 1976.

Nelson, James G. Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. With an Appendix on Smithers and the Erotic Book Trade by Peter Mendes and a Checklist of Smithers' Publications by James G. Nelson and Peter Mendes. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Pease, Allison. Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Snodgrass, Chris. Aubrey Beardsley: Dandy of the Grotesque. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sturgis, Matthew. Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography. Woodstock, N. Y.: Overlook Press, 1999.

Zatlin, Linda Gertner. Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Beardsley, Aubrey  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 8, 2002  
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