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The Life and Work of Aubrey Beardsley

Updated on December 14, 2013
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A Brief Biography

Aubrey [Vincent] Beardsley was born on August 21, 1872 in Brighton, Sussex, England. At the age of six (some sources say seven), he became ill with tuberculosis, which he would carry with him his entire life. He trained for a short time at the Westminster School of Art. Despite only having brief training, he was commissioned to illustrate several books and magazines, his first being “an edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur”. His illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s version of Salomé made him famous, but only briefly. After Wilde’s scandal, he found himself without work. The tuberculosis he contracted would eventually take his life. He died in 1898 at the age of 25 in Menton, France.

The Passion of Beardsley's Aesthetics

Beardsley’s work is considered “an integral part of the English Aesthetic Movement”. The English Aesthetic movement, which took place from about 1875 to 1920, was mainly a response to the Industrial Revolution. The artists who participated in the movement focused on external “beauty and quality”, which they felt was denied in favor of “profit and quantity” during that time. They felt that industry was “dehumanizing” and wanted to “restore the lost sense of beauty”. The subjects of aesthetic movement era works were typically “women, fairies, family scenes, historical scenes, landscapes and portraits”. Influences on this era included old style, detailed “classical composition” and the clean lines of Japanese prints.

Beardsley’s individual style of art has many influences. It can be described as a combination of “Pre-Raphaelitism, Greek vase paintings, Toulouse-Lautrec, japonaiserie, and the French eighteenth-century. Whether or not this large amount of influences makes his personal art style unique is very much debated. Some believe it to be “art nouveau at its stupidest and most vulgar”, while others believe that the many influences used by Beardsley give his art more variety, depth, and character. According to A.D. Fraser Jenkins, “he invented a cartoonist’s family of idiosyncratic characters who reappear throughout his work and who were remarkable above all for their expression of …desire…every posture, gesture, swelling or zigzag is a target for suspected innuendo”. In other words, Beardsley put passion into every line!

La Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard by Aubrey Beardsley. From Le Morte d'Arthur, 1893-94.
La Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard by Aubrey Beardsley. From Le Morte d'Arthur, 1893-94. | Source
The Dancer's Reward (Please note that clicking the source link will take you to the full version, which contains violent content)
The Dancer's Reward (Please note that clicking the source link will take you to the full version, which contains violent content) | Source
The Yellow Book (cover design)
The Yellow Book (cover design) | Source

Salomé

Many people who enjoy Beardsley’s work cite the illustrations he had made for Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé as his best works. The play is based upon a story from the Bible. In that story, Salomé is asked by her mother, Herodias, to “seduce” her stepfather, Herod Antipas, in exchange for the execution of John the Baptist, who had “condemned [their] marriage”. Infamously, Herodias orders Salomé to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, which was later done. Oscar Wilde’s version of the story, a “one-act play”, “[was] written to… shock audiences with its spectacle of perverse passions”. It varies wildly from the Biblical story in that Salomé lusts after John the Baptist. Aubrey Beardsley illustrated the published English edition of the play in 1894. Critics state that these illustrations “drove art nouveau to its extreme conclusion. The most famous of them all is The Dancer’s Reward. The illustration depicts the famous scene of Salomé holding John the Baptist’s head on a platter. The illustration is frightening and grotesque. Salomé’s expression is a mixture of anger, shock, joy, and passion. John’s lifeless head lays with its mouth wide open on the platter, which is, itself, on a surreal looking stand. However, there are traces of grace and beauty in the clean, flowing line work and the roses on Salomé’s long, loose-fitting dress. After illustrating Salomé, Beardsley went on to illustrate the popular periodical The Yellow Book. His illustrations in this, along with his Salomé drawings made him famous. However, this fame did not last for very long. Oscar Wilde was arrested for “homosexual practices and Beardsley, quite unfairly, was seen as having to close a link with Wilde”. Due to this scandal, Beardsley did not have much work in the three years leading into his death.

In his short life, Aubrey Beardsley has created many illustrations. Some of them tell stories, some inspire people, while some frighten and revolt people. His work was made to be the incarnate of beauty, in a time when many felt there was none left. His personal style has many influences. Aubrey Beardsley may have driven “art nouveau to its extreme conclusion”, but he did make sure that the conclusion, itself, was extreme.

Works Cited

"Aubrey Beardsley Biography." Bio. 1996. Web. 22 Aug 2012.

Beardsley, Aubrey. The Dancer's Reward. 1894. The Victorian Web. 22 Apr. 2008. Web. 30 Aug. 2012.

Fraser Jenkins, A. D. “Aubrey Beardsley. London.” The Burlington Magazine. 141.1150 (Jan. 1999): 48- 50. JSTOR. Web. 21 Aug. 2012.

Gould, Cecil. "Aubrey Beardsley." The Burlington Magazine. 91.559 (Oct. 1949): 294. Web. 23 Aug. 2012.

Lee, Elizabeth. "Salome." The Victorian Web. Brown University, 16 Jan. 2007. Web. 30 Aug. 2012.

Nguyen, Linh, Esmeralda Lessire, and Kate Pastoor. "The 19th Century Aesthetic Movement." UC Davis, 2002. Web. 29 Aug. 2012.

"The Art of Aubrey Beardsley: A Gallery of His Drawings." Glyphs. Thomas G Boss, 1997. Web. 27 Aug 2012.

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    • LadyBolet profile image
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      J Ferro 3 years ago from Fl

      Thank you for the comment. :>

    • Dbro profile image

      Dbro 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you for this interesting article about an iconic illustrator. I have always admired the work of this wonderful artist, but have known little about his life. Your article gave me more background on Beardsley's short, but prolific career. Very well done, ladybolet!