An in-depth examination of the last taboo in The Art Of Ex

June 26, 2023

Challenging the belief that we are living in an era of unrestricted licentiousness, Matthew Weigman, Sotheby’s Worldwide Director of Sales Communications, examines the prevailing…

For those who have a firmly contemporary perspective, the period prior to the 20th century appears to have been, in the realm of art at least, elevated, reserved, serious, and not nearly as captivating as the provocative and profane era that followed. However, the arts have always reflected – and indeed nurtured – the deeply human erotic instinct that leads to the survival and reproduction of our species. In fact, eroticism in art before the 20th century was so pervasive that there is no specific specialist at Sotheby’s dedicated to dealing with it, as it has manifested in various art forms: paintings, sculptures, drawings, book illustrations, and even timepieces. Art has always served as a medium to convey the human narrative, and sexuality has consistently been a part of that story.

Contrary to the belief that we are living in an era of unrestrained licentiousness, let’s explore what truly captivated the respectable bourgeoisie of Victorian England or the Second French Empire at the Royal Academy or the Salon on a Sunday afternoon. During a time when women from virtually any social class were covered from the neck down to the floor, the realm of “allegorical” paintings or mythological subjects provided masters like William Bouguereau with the opportunity to tantalize their audiences with vast expanses of naked, rosy-skinned, flawlessly shaped female bodies. Whether it be chaste goddesses flaunting their perfection or nymphs who boldly meet the viewer’s gaze, the sensuality emanating from these artworks is unmistakable.

n Victorian Britain, artworks such as “Andromeda” by Sir Edward John Poynter, “Venus Verticordia” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and “Venus Disrobing for the Bath” by Frederic Lord Leighton were considered shocking and provocative classics of their time. Poynter’s “Andromeda” used a classical theme as an excuse to portray nudity, emphasizing the more titillating aspects by depicting her completely naked, seemingly experiencing ecstasy in her bondage. The artist presented Andromeda chained to the rocks, awaiting rescue by Perseus from the sea monster, according to the mythological tale. This context alone made the scandalous image more acceptable to the conservative British audience. It is worth noting that there was no specific mention in the myth that Andromeda was naked during her predicament. However, Poynter, perhaps like Oscar Wilde, believed that “to be really Greek one should have no clothes.”

“At least Andromeda” has a fully developed classical narrative behind it. On the other hand, Leighton’s “Venus Disrobing for the Bath” simply portrays a supposed goddess in the form of a woman undressing for the viewer, who then becomes a voyeur spying on her. One might question whether this artwork represents Victorian high classicism or pandering to a baser instinct.

As for Rossetti’s “Venus Verticordia,” it stands as his most erotic and explicit painting, complemented by symbols indicating fullness and ripeness. These symbols include the golden apple (or apple of discord), associated with the temptation of Helen of Troy, the central figure in one of the most controversial sex scandals in history. This scandal led to a war between the two most powerful nations on earth, all for the sake of possessing one woman.

Rossetti’s concept revolved around the idea that Venus Verticordia possessed the ability to captivate men’s minds and hearts, leading them away from chastity. The painting was strategically designed to evoke arousal in its male viewers, indicating that they had indeed grasped the underlying message of the historical lesson. Rossetti pushed the boundaries even further by adorning Venus with a halo, establishing a connection with the Madonna and essentially glorifying sin and lust. It is worth noting that a prominent figure in Victorian society, William Graham, who served as the MP for Glasgow, commissioned both the oil and watercolor versions of the painting, undoubtedly desiring private edification through Venus’s charms. It comes as no surprise that there was a strong demand for such material during a time when even the exposure of a piano leg was deemed inappropriate due to its potential to arouse.

Lest anyone assume that our ancestors neglected such matters, it is important to highlight the Classical Canon of Art developed by the French Academy in the 17th century. According to this canon, the highest rank in artistic production was occupied by figurative history painting, which prominently featured mythological nudes. Portraiture, still life, landscape, and genre painting followed in descending order of importance. The depiction of the human figure was considered one of the most challenging subjects, and students were guided through a strictly regulated process to acquire the necessary skills, starting with copying from antique models. The pinnacle of success for a student would be to receive the Prix de Rome, while accomplished academicians exhibited their works at the Salon.

Surprisingly, one of the most famous confrontations in the art world revolved around the subject of erotic art. In 1863, the esteemed Academician Alexandre Cabanel created his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, which became the quintessential nude painting of the Second French Empire. Emperor Napoleon III himself purchased the artwork, lending his name to the era.

During the same year, the radical proto-Impressionist painter Edouard Manet rebelled against the neo-classical idealizing art movement by intentionally creating an image of a woman who was not nude, but rather “naked” – a shocking departure from the norm. His groundbreaking painting, Olympia, referred to a significant Renaissance nude and depicted a prostitute. Taking it a step further, the renowned Realist painter Gustave Courbet painted works like Femme nue three years later, portraying a woman lying flat on her back unmistakably in the throes of sexual satisfaction.

Courbet’s success with Femme nue encouraged him to push further and depict even more central aspects of feminine attributes. His painting L’Origine du monde, a loving depiction of female genitalia, attracted significant attention in its time and continues to possess the ability to shock. Over a decade ago, it was exhibited in darkness, isolated from the main exhibition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, giving the impression of a peep show. The painting’s initial owner was Khalil Bey, a 19th-century Turkish collector who had a fondness for provocative French artworks. He concealed the painting behind an innocent winter landscape by Courbet, which he would delight in sliding away to reveal what lay beneath.

However, because the art of Courbet and Manet was seen as a rebellion against the French Academy, it was not permitted to contaminate the sacred precincts of the Salon. Instead, it was reluctantly exhibited at the Salon des Refusés, which attracted a distinctly bohemian crowd. According to my colleague Adrian Biddell, Head of 19th Century European Art, the same upper-class gentlemen who took their wives and families to a picture show at the Salon on a Sunday afternoon might bring their mistresses to the Salon des Refusés in the evening.

If we rewind back to the 16th century, we can consider the book connoisseur, secluded in his library for hours. Was he contemplating the breakdown of Aristotelian Cosmology as portrayed in the works of Copernicus? While printing began in the 15th century, most books printed before 1500 were intended for serious study or institutional use. However, at the beginning of the 16th century, private, personal reading for leisure gained popularity, and printers utilized the new technology to cater to this demand by producing books in smaller formats.

Printing posed a clear threat to orthodoxy, as widely distributed books meant that people could think for themselves, a concept that the prevailing authorities feared as potentially heralding the end of civilization as they knew it. This was an era in which Martin Luther had unequivocally challenged the practices of the Roman Catholic hierarchy by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517.

The Church responded with the publication of the Index of Prohibited Books, which was issued from 1559 until 1948, aiming to inform devout individuals about the forbidden readings. However, surprisingly enough, an examination of an index from the mid-16th century reveals a plethora of erotic and pornographic titles, which seemed to have overshadowed Luther. Paradoxically, the Index became a reference guide for the irreverent, listing must-reads for those with a rebellious nature.

During this period, the center of European printing was in Venice, and Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), known as Europe’s first pornographer, chose to settle in what he considered the “seat of all vices.” Aretino gained notoriety as a satirist, earning the title “Scourge of Princes.” However, it is his licentious works that are noteworthy here. His profane texts included “La Puttana Errante” (The Errant Prostitute), the first literary work to focus on carnal gratification. His infamously coarse poems, known as “The Postures,” accompanied pornographic drawings by Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael. These explicit works served as a shocking and obscene early guide to fornication, devoid of any mythological or moral pretext. Such was the influence of these erotic explorations that the French author François-Félix Nogaret even wrote “L’Arétin Français,” a witty French equivalent of Aretino and Romano’s guide to sex.

In 2004, Johnny Depp delivered a swashbuckling performance as the legendary rake in the film adaptation titled The Libertine. This movie is sure to captivate those with an interest in history.

Before the 19th century, when watchmaking technology was less affordable, only the wealthiest individuals could afford such lascivious features in their timepieces. Similar to the evolution of printing technology, advancements in watchmaking were swiftly utilized to cater to lustful desires. However, production in those earlier days was more tailored to individual preferences. For instance, in 1780, the Maharajah of Hyderabad commissioned an Erotic Automaton in the form of a Music Table Clock, housed in an Ormolu-Mounted Casket. This unique timepiece featured an enamel plaque that concealed an erotic automaton scene depicting two naked couples frolicking in a landscape.

The story of erotic art is an extensive one, with many more tales left to be told. It spans across different times and lands: from the erotic scrimshaw created by American sailors during long whaling voyages, reportedly resting in significant numbers at the bottom of Boston Harbor after being jettisoned by their owners before returning to their wives, to the intriguing history of sexual life in ancient China, with surviving phalluses made of stone, ceramics, and bronze from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). There are also alluring silk albums from the 17th century and provocative porcelain pieces from the 19th century. However, perhaps it is most fitting to conclude with the African fertility figures, whose frontal nudity and power influenced artists like Picasso and others, standing up to anything contemporary art can produce.