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Artists Who Died Before 30: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

Updated on September 9, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Aubrey V. Beardsley
Aubrey V. Beardsley | Source

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.

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Excalibur in the Lake, illustration for Morte D'Arthur.
Excalibur in the Lake, illustration for Morte D'Arthur. | Source

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.

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Peacock Cape
Peacock Cape | Source

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.

Merlin
Merlin | Source

Have you ever see work by Aubrey Beardsley before?

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No language is rude that can boast polite writers.

— Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley 1896
Aubrey Beardsley 1896 | Source

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.

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Unique Signature

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.

Mirror Love
Mirror Love | Source
from Salome
from Salome | Source

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
The Dancer's Reward, from Salome.
The Dancer's Reward, from Salome. | Source
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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.

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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.

from Morte D'Arthur.
from Morte D'Arthur. | Source
Volpone adoring his treasure.
Volpone adoring his treasure. | Source

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.

The Black Cape
The Black Cape | Source
Source

Encouragers helped

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.

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Artistic Comments Welcomed

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      I thought they were enchanting too. Something wildly exotic and unusual about they way he drew his figures. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Many thanks for this hub. Never have heard about Aubrey Vincent or seen his works. I find them not grotesque. They are beautiful and enchanting for me :)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      drbj,

      I remember when I first "stumbled" on his work. I couldn't believe it. Such a young short life created all this? He is remarkable. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 2 years ago from south Florida

      What a talented artist he was, Denise. Thanks for bringing him to my attention - his enchanting work was new to me.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      florypaula,

      Yes, this one is a tragedy because we didn't really have a cure for TB back then. Today you just don't hear of people dying of this illness so it seems he was born in the wrong time. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • florypaula profile image

      Paula 2 years ago

      Another talented artist gone way too soon. Who knows how much more wonderful art he would have given to the world if he had more years to live. Sad, really sad.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Annart, thank you. It's a joy to be able to talk to you from so far away. I would love a tour guide if ever I can get there. We shall see.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      BlossomSB,

      Yes, I think many people have seen some of his work without knowing it was him, because of a resurgence of popularity back in the 70's, I think, and people were using the designs on t-shirts and mugs and things. Funny how we get exposed to art and we don't even realize it. thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      Do look me up if ever you come over!

      Ann

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 2 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thank you for an introduction to this artist. Actually, now having seen those examples I think perhaps I had seen his work before. Fascinating, while some are rather horrid, they are all so beautifully executed. Wish I could vote this UP!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thanks, Larry. It is simple, yet complex at the same time. That makes him a masterful juggler, getting the two just right to fascinate. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Minnetonka Twin,

      I'm happy you enjoyed it. Biographies are interesting aren't they? It isn't just dates and places that make history, it's people's lives. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Ann, again I'm so very happy you enjoyed this one. Yes there is something really striking about black and white. I even love to watch black and white classic movies, like Citizen Kane. Something mysterious about it as you said. I'd love to see England someday. Maybe I'll look you up.. lol. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Love the simplicity and crisp stylings of his artistry.

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 2 years ago from Minnesota

      Denise-Thanks for this intriguing history of Aubrey Beardsley. I was glued to the information and incredible works of art he created. Beautifully written article.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I love Art Nouveau and Beardsley's work also reminds me of Erté though he added colour to most of his work.

      Black and white is so striking; you can't ignore it. As in B&W photos, there is some mystery and atmosphere about it. I used to love doing pen and ink and charcoal drawings at school.

      I didn't know Beardsley was born in Brighton - so was I, or just outside in Shoreham-by-Sea actually. It's my home area. Oxford, England, is also a place I know quite well. That gives me quite a bit in common with him doesn't it? Just wish that I was as good an artist!

      Great hub. I'm determined to read the rest in this series asap.

      Ann

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      It's true. Who knows what he would have accomplished if he had had more time. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
      Author

      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Akriti Mattu,

      You are welcome. I hope you learned something new and interesting from his story and his art. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 2 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Oh, he is an amazing artist and I have never heard about him. Thank you for this precious information. It is so sad that he died young. He might have created so much wonderful things.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 2 years ago from Shimla, India

      Thanks for this hub.

    working

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