Artists Who Died Before 30: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley
He died too young
It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.
Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.
That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of Aubrey Beardsley who died of tuberculosis before his 26th birthday.
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (21 August 1872 – 16 March 1898)
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an English illustrator and author. His drawings in black ink, influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley's contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau and poster styles was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis.
So much to do, so little time.
Beardsley had so little time to make a mark in the artistic world that it is amazing how much he was able to accomplish. I don’t remember seeing any of his work in color; perhaps he just didn’t have time for color. But the black and white ink illustrations he accomplished were remarkable in their style and elegance. Some of his work appears grotesque and hideous, causing the viewer to want to back away, repulsed, and yet you continue to look. It is rather like a car accident; you know you shouldn’t stare at the tragedy but you just can’t help yourself. The deep black shapes and white lines mixed with mere outlines of faces and hands are almost cartoonish, yet ahead of their time for that era. His work influenced many artists to come and has had several resurgence of popularity throughout the decades since his death.
Have you ever see work by Aubrey Beardsley before?
No language is rude that can boast polite writers.— Aubrey Beardsley
Youngest of two children.
He was born in Brighton, England, the younger of two children to Vincent Paul Beardsley and Ellen Agnus Pitt, the daughter of Surgeon-Major William Pitt of the Indian Army. Aubrey had no trade himself but relied on a private income inheritance from his maternal grandfather. He had been so sickly as a youngster that he missed two years of school. It was probably the first indication that he would not live long. He was always thin, frail and sickly looking. Yet he loved poetry, theater and art. He acted in plays he and his sister created for his family to watch. His mother was serious in exposing he and his sister to good music, good books and good art. She had a gentle, elegant way about her that is rare these days.
In the early years, Beardsley rarely signed his work, but later he developed a unique signature form that was influenced by Japanese characters. The A.V.B initials morphed into something resembling a graceful candelabrum that he used in the bottom corner of his illustrations. I remember Albrecht Durer had a singular initial signature in his works that became definitive also. One of an artists first branding innovation is to find a unique way to sign his work and Beardsley did just that.
Controversial even today
Beardsley’s work was hugely controversial for the times and helped define the Art Nouveau era. His dark flat shapes were just as important to the design as the large white shapes. There is a sort of dance formed by the way the white and black fit together to create form and substance. His themes were of history and mythology, including some Biblical motifs for the story of Salome who danced for King Herod and pleased him so much that he granted her any wish; and she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The Salome pieces are grotesque and beautiful at the same time.
If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.— Aubrey Beardsley
Good friends, bad friends.
It is believed that Beardsley was asexual because of his association with Oscar Wilde and others in the clique of English aesthetes at that time. He never married but never had time for that since he was ill so often. There is even speculation that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister, Mabel, but it is not proven. You know how people love to talk. He suffered frequent attacks of the tuberculosis that would eventually take his life, often unable to work or even leave his home. During the last year, his health deteriorated so much that his mother and sister moved him to the French Riviera, where he died a year later.
Converted to Catholicism before his death.
Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in 1897 and asked his publisher to destroy any “unholy” work he may have done previously, which his publisher did not do. Even today his work is admired and republished on everything from china mugs to posters. It still has a stark appeal; both bold and terrible; beautiful and grotesque.
Art technique to be admired.
His fine simple lines and dots mixed with limited extensive detail, made his work unique in the illustration world and even today it is copied but never mastered like Beardsley. I can really appreciate the lines that never seem to falter or shake. So sure and perfect. Black and white is stark and elegant and not as easy to master as one would think. The shading has to be subtlety done with just a few lines to indicate shades of grey, yet Beardsley handled it masterfully. I think what really makes me look is the use of large black shapes and then nothing… he didn’t mind leaving large areas basically “unfinished.” As a matter of fact, the unfinished areas are just as much a part of the composition as the filled areas. I can really admire that.
I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and whom you know more than talent most of the time. In Beardsley’s case, if it had not been for an artist friend seeing his work and encouraging him to take the artist’s path, there is no telling where he may have ended up or if he would have done anything significant with his few remaining years. To me it is a lesson to encourage people wherever I find them and help them become their best selves. The rest is up to them.