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Erotic art

Before the 1860s, Western artists needed a pretext to depict eroticism and nudity. Mythology or martyrology were the most popular pretexts. This changed after the 1860s with the arrival of realism in modern art. A key painting that illustrates this transition is Manet's Olympia.

Parent categories: erotica - visual arts

Related: erotic art of Pompeii - erotic books - erotic comics - erotic fiction - erotic illustration - female nude - fetish art - erotic movies - erotic photography - nudity - perversion in modern art - sex museum - shunga - Venus

Connoisseurs: Joseph-Marie Lo Duca - the Kronhausens - Peter Webb

Girl Reclining (Louise O'Murphy) 1751 - François Boucher

The Enchantress (1878) - Luis Riccardo Faléro
image sourced here.

Works: Luncheon on the Grass (1863) - Olympia (1863/1865) - Origin of the World (1866) - Pornokrates (1879) -

Artists: Lautrec - Ingres - François Boucher - Giuliano Romano - Hans Bellmer - Gustave Courbet - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - Allen Jones - Félicien Rops - Tomi Ungerer - Clovis Trouille

Maja Desnuda (c. 1800) - Goya

La Maja Desnuda ("The Nude Maja") is a oil painting on canvas by the master Spanish painter, Francisco de Goya, that portrays a nude woman reclining on a bed of pillows. It was executed some time between 1797 and 1800, and is said to be the first depiction of pubic hair in Western art.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Maja_Desnuda --text sourced at various Wikipedia pages [Jan 2006]


Erotic art covers any visual artistic work including paintings, sculptures, photographs that evoke erotic feelings (sexual arousal) in the viewer. Not all art which features nudity is necessarily erotic. Note that the difference between erotica and pornography is covered on the erotica page and that there is a separate entry for erotic fiction. Furthermore, there is timeline of erotica which has some overlap with the present page. [Jul 2006]

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erotic_art


The terms erotic and erotica are fairly new since they date from the 1860s and in the strictest sense of the term, one cannot speak of erotic art before the 1860s, because there was no separate category for it.

Before the 1860s, artists needed an excuse or pretext to depict eroticism, nudity in their paintings or engravings. Mythology or martyrology were very popular pretexts to paint nudity and eroticism (see themes of pre-1860s erotic art on this page).

Things started to change with the arrival of Realism in modern art and new aesthetic sensibilities; artists no longer needed an excuse to paint their favourite subjects, although there was still some resistance to the idea. The now famous Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), was frowned upon by the critics because nudes were acceptable in historical and allegorical paintings, but to show them in common settings was forbidden.

The link between modern art and perversion is explored by Donald Kuspit (2004) who maintains that "perversion was implicit in modern art from the beginning".

In academic art of the time, Orientalism often provided the right context to paint nudity, scenes of harem girls as depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme come to mind.

It has only been in the late 20th century that artists have been able to pursue their interests in a uncensored way. [Jan 2006]

From Giulio Romano to Egon Schiele

Plate from the
I Modi collection (1524)
Giulio Romano (drawing), Marcantonio Raimondi (engraving)

In Europe, starting with the Renaissance, there was a tradition of producing erotica for the amusement of the aristocracy. In the early 16th century, the text I Modi was an woodcut album created by the designer Giulio Romano, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and the poet Pietro Aretino. In 1601 Caravaggio painted the "Love Triumphant," for the collection of the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani. The latter is reputed to have kept it hidden behind a curtain to show only to his friends, as it was seen as a blatant celebration of sodomy. The tradition was continued by other, more modern painters, such as Fragonard, Courbet, Millet, Balthus, Picasso, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, who served time in jail and had several works destroyed by the authorities for offending turn-of-the-century Austrian mores with his depiction of nude young girls, and so on. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erotic_art#Modern_erotica [Apr 2005]

Nudity in art the visual arts

The nude has become an enduring genre of representational art, especially painting, sculpture, and photography. It depicts people without clothes on, usually with stylistic and staging conventions that distinguish the artistic elements (such as innocence, or similar theatrical/artistic elements) of being nude with the more provocative state of being naked. A nude figure is one, such as a goddess or a man in ancient Greece, for whom the lack of clothing is its usual condition, so that there is no sexual suggestiveness presumed. A naked figure is one, such as a contemporary prostitute or a businessman, who usually wears clothing, such that their lack of it in this scene implies sexual activity or suggestiveness. The latter were rare in European art from the Medieval period until the latter half of the 1800s; in the interim, a work featuring an unclothed woman would routinely identify her as "Venus" or another Greco-Roman goddess, to justify her nudity. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudity_in_art [Jan 2006]

Orientalism and erotic art

Depictions of Islamic "Moors" and "Turks" (imprecisely named Muslim groups of North Africa and West Asia) can be found in Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. But it was not until the 19th century that "Orientalism" in the arts became an established theme. In these works the myth of the Orient as exotic and corrupt is most fully articulated. Such works typically concentrated on Near-Eastern Islamic cultures. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme painted many depictions of Islamic culture, often including lounging odalisques, and stressing lassitude and visual spectacle. When Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, director of the French Académie de peinture painted a highly-colored vision of a turkish bath, he made his eroticized Orient publicly acceptable by his diffuse generalizing of the female forms, who might all have been of the same model. If his painting had simply been retitled "In a Paris Brothel," it would have been far less acceptable. Sensuality was seen as acceptable in the exotic Orient. This orientalizing imagery persisted in art into the early 20th century, as evidenced in Matisse's orientalist nudes. In these works the "Orient" often functions as a mirror to Western culture itself, or as a way of expressing its hidden or illicit aspects. In Gustave Flaubert's novel Salammbô ancient Carthage in North Africa is used as a foil to ancient Rome. Its culture is portrayed as morally corrupting and suffused with dangerously alluring eroticism. This novel proved hugely influential on later portrayals of ancient Semitic cultures. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism#Depictions_of_the_Orient_in_art_and_literature [Jul 2006]

Prostitution in art

Prostitute: the Sphinx (1898) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec belongs to the tradition of modern artists' portraying prostitutes sympathetically; other works that spring to mind are Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon 1907. Writers of the time did the same. Examples are Emile Zola's Nana, Alexandre Dumas fils's La Dame aux Camélias and Guy de Maupassant's Borde de Madame Tellier. [Jan 2006]


  • The Erotic Arts (1975) - Peter Webb
  • Erotic Art of the Masters the 18th, 19th, 20th Centuries Art & Artists (1974) - Bradley Smith

    Red Nude (1917) - Amedeo Modigliani

    Nude Sdraiato or Red Nude (1917) - Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920)

    Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (July 12, 1884 – January 24, 1920) was a Jewish Italian painter and sculptor. Modigliani was born in Livorno, Tuscany and began his artistic studies in Italy before moving to Paris in 1906 where he began to create his unique style, influenced by the artists in his circle of friends, primitive art, but standing apart from them stylistically. Sick most of his life, he partook of alcohol and drugs, and was a philanderer; he died at the age of 35. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amedeo_Modigliani [Jul 2006]

    Two days after Modigliani's death, his widow Hébuterne threw herself out of a fifth-floor window , killing herself and her unborn child. Friends believed they had made a suicide pact and, although her family initially refused permission, Jeanne's remains were released to be buried alongside Modigliani's. [Jul 2006]

    See also: erotic art - modern art - 1917

    Mihály Zichy (1827 - 1906)

    Artwork by Mihály Zichy (1827 - 1906)
    Image sourced here.

    Mihály Zichy (October 15, 1827 in Zala, Hungary; February 28, 1906 in St. Petersburg) was an Hungarian painter and graphic artist. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mih%C3%A1ly_Zichy [Jan 2006]

    Erotica : The Fine Art of Sex (2003) - Edward Lucie-Smith

  • Erotica : The Fine Art of Sex (2003) - Edward Lucie-Smith [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Edward Lucie-Smith has published more than a hundred books in all, more than sixty books about art, chiefly but not exclusively about contemporary work. He is generally regarded as both the most prolific and the most widely published writer on art in the world, with sales for some titles totaling over 250,000 copies. A number of his art books, among them Movements in Art Since 1945, Visual Arts of the 20th Century, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Art Today are used as standard texts throughout the world. Other well-known texts include Sexuality in Western Art. --About the Author via amazon.com

    Edward Lucie-Smith is probably the best-known author in his field internationally respected for the breadth of his sympathies, for the clarity and directness of his writing on art, and for his ability to make complex contemporary developments accessible to a wide audience. He brings all of his talents to bear in this book, which is a wonderful compendium of erotic art and literature, selected by, and commented on by the world's leading authority on the subject. --Book Description via amazon.com

    Edward Lucie-Smith continues to write books that embrace all aspects of art and this current release is not exception. Originally released in 1997 by Rizzoli having been produced by The Ivy Press in the UK with the title ARS EROTICA: AN AROUSING HISTORY OF EROTIC ART, this book remains intact in the St. Martin's Press release. The quality of the paper and the quality of the art reproductions is of the highest nature.

    Lucie-Smith has the gift to inform conversationally as he writes about the history of eroticism in art. His writing includes excerpts from poems, novels, articles, and quotations that are liberally reproduced throughout this extremely visual book. The overview of erotic art is divided into chapters: Sex in the Head, Naked as Adam, Naked as Eve, Loves of the Gods, Down to Earth, Looking On (voyeurism), Boys will be Boys, Women in Love, En plein Air, Solitary Pleasures (onanism), Coming Together (group sex), All Change (gender alterations as well as costumes), and Love Hurts (sadomasochism). He has selected a wide range of artists - painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers - who truly span the timeline with titillations form Egyptian and Greek imagery to present day practitioners of Eroticism.

    Lucie-Smith may concentrate on potentially over-the-top images, but he never loses sight of his mission to inform. His writing is lucid, often humorous and equally often deeply thoughtful when challenging the mores of our time. A fun and very informative book. --Grady Harp via amazon.com

    John Edward McKenzie Lucie-Smith (born 27 February 1933) is a British writer, known as a poet and art critic, and as a curator and author of exhibition catalogues. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Lucie-Smith [Nov 2005]

    Erotic Art of the Masters the 18th, 19th, 20th Centuries Art & Artists (1974) - Bradley Smith

    This 1974 volume with an introduction by Henry Miller is very much a product of the sexual revolution, celebrating the newly gained freedom. A good introduction to erotic art overall. Emphasis is on Western erotic art, but ample attention is given to the East too. [Jan 2006]

    Erotic Art of the Masters the 18th, 19th, 20th Centuries Art & Artists (1974) - Bradley Smith [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Contributor: Balthus, Thomas Bayrle, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, Hans Bellmer, Francois Boucher, Roland Bourigeaud, Robert Broderson, Jose Manuel Capuletti, Frederico Castellon, Marc Chagall, Theodore Chasseriau, Jean-Paul Cleren, Gustave Courbet, Salvador Dali, Honore Daumier, John de Andrea, Charles Edouard de Beaumont, Willem de Kooning, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Louis de Wet, Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Paul Delvaux, Michel Desimon, Achille Deveria, Dan Douke, Martha Edelheit, Moarch Eveno, Alexandre Fassianos, Jean Honore Fragonard, Harriette Frances, Ernst Fuchs, John Henry Fuseli, Paul Gauguin, Jean Baptiste Greuze, George Grosz, Constatin Guys, Suzuki Harunobu, Katsushika Hokusal, Rajasthan India, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Allen B. Jones, Morton Kaish, Gustav Klimt, Isoda Korysuai, Eugene le Poitevin, Bernard Louedin, Rene Magritte, Edourard Manet, Andre Masson, Jean Francois Millet, Didier Moreau, Graham Ovenden, Robert Andrew Parker, Jules Pascin, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Jean-Marie Poumeyrol, Mel Ramos, Albert Reiss, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Larry Rivers, Modesto Roldan, Georges Rouault, Thomas Rowlandson, Egon Schiele, George Segal, Sir Stanley Spencer, Octave Tassaert, Clara Tice, Kitagawa Utamaro, Michael Von Zichy, Andy Warhol, Jean Antoine Watteau, Tom Wesselmann, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Paul Wunderlich, Julio Agosto Zachrisson & Stefan Zechowski.

    The Erotic Arts (1975) - Peter Webb

    Very nice book, bit hard to find, but good chapters on literature and the visual arts, small chapter on cinema. [Jan 2006]

    The Erotic Arts (1975) - Peter Webb [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Even one of the most liberal advocates of the freedom to read and see sexually explicit art, Peter Webb, author of The Erotic Arts (1975), completely loses his case when he accepts one definition of "pornography" by saying that it is linked to "obscenity" rather than to "eroticism." As I see it, the adjective "erotic" is simply used to describe an obscenity more than a hundred years old. It is very much a matter of the hallowed past, and a game with words that operates on the principle by which "second-hand" furniture eventually becomes "antique." At least in popular usage. --http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/pornogra.htm [Aug 01]

    Table of contents

    • Art and Pornography
    • Sexual Themes in Ancient and Primitive Art
    • Eroticism in Oriental Art and Religion
    • Sexual Attitudes in Victorian Art and Literature
    • Twentieth-Century Erotic Art
    • The Erotic Novel
    • Eroticism in Films
    • Eroticism in Performing Arts
    • The Theatre of Celebration.

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