Aubrey Beardsley
Biography and Drawings of English Art Nouveau Illustrator.

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Salome (1892) (detail)
Princetown University Library
A masterpiece of fin de siecle
Victorian art, by Aubrey Beardsley.

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98)


Early Life
Influences on His Career and Art
Early Style: Morte d'Arthur Illustrations
Later Style: Salome Illustrations, Yellow Book
Oscar Wilde Scandal: Dismissal as Yellow Book Editor
Illustrative Drawings For Aristophanes' Lysistrata

NOTE: For analysis of works by graphic artists like Aubrey Beardsley,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Ali Baba (1897)
Victoria and Albert Museum.


The brilliant, highly original but controversial English Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley is best-known for his erotic black-and-white illustrations which typified fin de siecle English decadence at the end of the 19th-century. A workaholic and art editor of The Yellow Book, Beardsley's most famous drawings include his illustration of Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Oscar Wilde's Salome (Princeton University Library, New Jersey). Satirized in Punch magazine as "Aubrey Weirdsley", he became - despite a short life and an artistic career of only 6 years - one of the best known artists of his day and a major figure in Art Nouveau design as well as the Aesthetic movement. Throughout his life, Beardsley suffered from recurrent disabling attacks of tuberculosis, the disease that would finally kill him at the age of 25. With his contemporary Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), he is regarded as England's greatest master of illustration and one of the most original graphic artists of modern art.

For more biographies of poster
designers & Art Nouveau artists:
Jules Cheret (1836-1932)
Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)
Leonetto Cappiello (1875-1942)

For the history, styles of
sketching, and draughtsmen:
Chalk Drawings
Charcoal Drawings
Conte Crayon Drawings
Pastel Drawings
Pencil Drawings

For a guide to the best of
modern UK painters (1960-2000),
see Contemporary British Painting.

For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

For information and facts about
famous artists from England, see:
English Figurative Painting
18th/19th century portraiture
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
Romantic leader of Pre-Raphaelites
John Everett Millais (1829-96)
Academic portraitist
William Morris (1834-96)
Leader of Arts & Crafts Movement.

For a list of drawing masters,
see: Modern Artists.

Early Life

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Brighton. As a schoolboy he showed remarkable talent in various arts including music, writing and drama, as well as drawing and cartoons. He began his professional life in 1888 as a clerk in a surveyor's office in London at the age of 16, transferring shortly afterwards to the Guardian Life Insurance Company. To counteract the boredom of his routine office job, he resorted during his free time to music, literature, and, especially, drawing. By 1890 he was determined to put his talents as a draftsman to more appropriate use.

Influences on His Career and Art

In 1891 he met the painter and medieval-illustrator Edward Burne-Jones, who encouraged him to study art seriously and to pursue it as a profession. Beardsley attended classes at the Westminster School of Art under Professor Fred Brown and, although his initial enthusiasm for instruction soon waned, it was revived within the same year when Beardsley saw Whistler's Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room (1877; Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). Whistler's adaptation and transformation of Japanese motifs fascinated Beardsley and encouraged him to collect original Japanese prints. He also became interested in the work of Mantegna, Pollaiuolo, and Botticelli, which he saw in the National Gallery, and in the work of Albrecht Durer, which he studied in reproductions.




Beardsley discovered additional sources of inspiration when he went to Paris in 1892. Armed with a letter of introduction from Burne-Jones, he visited the great French decorative painter and the muralist Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) who praised the work of the young Englishman.

Early Style: Morte d'Arthur Illustrations

Public recognition first came to Beardsley when the owner of a bookshop, Frederick Evans, recommended him to the publisher John Dent as the most suitable illustrator for Dent's republication of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Dent granted Beardsley the commission, which occupied him for the next 18 months. Most of his images during this early period are pen and ink drawings, and comprise large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, along with areas of minute detail contrasting with areas with none at all.

One of these illustrations, Merlin and Nimue (in Morte d'Arthur, vol.I, London, 1893) serves to demonstrate his early style. Beardsley's treatment of this subject, depicted earlier by Edward Burne-Jones, retains some of the details of the older master's style. Merlin is still the robe-swathed wizard outwitted and undone by his powerful pupil, the beautiful Nimue. The setting remains naturalistic - the action takes place in an appropriate forest glade. Yet there is a languid, morbid mood to the scene, underlined by the facial expressions, which is altogether absent from the work of Burne-Jones. This departure from his master's style is taken even further in the border: floriated patterns swirl around the central illustration while a snake emerges from the foliage to support the title banner. Some of these elements may derive from Japanese decoration, but the composition as a whole is quite unique.

Later Style: Salome Illustrations, Yellow Book

Beardsley's next noteworthy commission was the illustration of Oscar Wilde's play Salome. Here the influence of Whistler becomes quite distinct, as witnessed in The Peacock Skirt (1894; William Hayes Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.). The principal motif comes directly from Whistler's decorative scheme which Beardsley had seen three years earlier. But again, he forsakes the application of the original for a flight of fancy peculiar to himself. The peacock does not simply adorn the skirt, it appears in a cloud-like vision at the upper left. Peacock feathers form a crown from the left-hand figure, and dart from this point to the corners of the drawing. The curving, sinuous line, the fantastic exaggeration of natural forms, and the emphasis on the dramatic potential of black and white were later to become incorporated into the language of the international Art Nouveau style.

Contemporary with the Salome illustrations was Beardsley's appointment as art editor of the influential quarterly arts periodical The Yellow Book (see Aubrey Beardsley: prospectus cover for The Yellow Book April 15, 1894. Victoria and Albert Museum). His contributions to this periodical brought his work before a wider, but generally hostile audience. The critics objected to the grotesque misrepresentation of famous figures and recoiled from the macabre and perverse imagination responsible for their distortion.

Oscar Wilde Scandal: Dismissal of Beardsley as Yellow Book Editor

The adverse reaction to his Yellow Book drawings (he edited four editions), together with his tenuous links with Wilde, led to Beardsley's dismissal from The Yellow Book following the Wilde scandal of 1895. This was quite unfair. Despite his association with Wilde's gay clique, which included several other English aesthetes, Beardsley's private life was blameless, not least because of his workaholic nature and a physique weakened by lung disease. He also had no great liking for Wilde himself.

Shortly after his departure from The Yellow Book, as well as continuing to exercise his talent for satirical caricature and political cartoons, he joined the staff of the recently founded Savoy Magazine, in which some of his best designs were published. The Rape of the Lock drawings display a knowledge of 18th-century French art, well-illustrated in The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles (1896; Barber Institute of fine Arts, Birmingham, England), which uses intermediate tones reminiscent of stipple engraving. This conveys a warmer, more sympathetic atmosphere than the stark juxtaposition of black and white values found in his earlier work. However, in keeping with his graphic art as a whole, certain aspects of the drawing remain highly stylized and are intended for strictly decorative effects.

Illustrative Drawings For Aristophanes' Lysistrata

During this final period, Beardsley also completed another set of illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which rank among his most explicit examples of erotic art. At the end of his life, however, Beardsley regretted some of his transgressions against conventional taste and morals. He wrote to his publisher and patron, Leonard Smithers, requesting that his morally questionable drawings be destroyed. Despite this plea, Smithers preserved all his drawings and saved a representative selection of the grotesque creations of a brilliant draftsman.

In keeping with his unconventionality in the visual arts, Beardsley also maintained a somewhat eccentric manner in public. He wore dove-grey suits, hats, and ties, and yellow gloves, and would frequently appear in a morning coat and patent leather pumps.

Beardsley remained active until his death in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Menton, France, at the age of 25.


Beardsley's style was a reflection of the liberal decadence of fin de siecle Europe, and he also drew inspiration from a number of other artists, from the Renaissance as well as his own era of modern art. But his illustrative genius was all his own. Detached from the moral norms of mainstream Victorian society, his art remains vividly original, and it is no surprise that his influence over later artists and illustrators was enormous. Notable followers included the French Symbolists, the Poster art Movement of the 1890s and the work of many later Art Nouveau artists.


Illustrations by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

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