History of Erotic Art

European Art up to the 20th Century

From the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century in Europe, any artist wishing to use an erotic subject as inspiration would have to mask it with the use of mythology. Mythology was a world of fantasy and as such had little bearing on the real world. Through the retelling of myths, subjects that would otherwise be forbidden could be tackled, such as naked figures lying together. Marie-Louise O'Murphy (1737-1818) painted by Francois Boucher (1703–1770)To reassure the viewer, the background in which the figures were placed would be quite elaborate, indicating that such things could only happen in fantasy. Important public buildings could display 'nude' art with no suggestion of it being erotic or encouraging sexual desire. Patrons of this kind of art would be found among the ranks of the well-born, prosperous man. The educated man was schooled in ancient Greek and Latin and would have a good knowledge of the myths of the classical period. This patron would commission artists to paint favourite themes often of an erotic nature, but because of the cloak of mythology these paintings were deemed socially acceptable.

Along with mythological themes, the use of Christian themes would also be manipulated into the erotic. The female form was generally depicted nude, although differing fashions dictated how much of the body the artist would show. In 17th and 18th Century France, the buttocks were extremely erotic and often a lady would be depicted showing an area of cheek to the viewer. The French artists of that time, Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard, were well known for their voyeuristic views of rounded bottoms, pictures depicting erotic playfulness and the pursuit of pleasure. Breasts and genitals were not considered as erotic, but this changes in the 20th century when breasts become the main erotic focus for a lot of art work.

The nude was central to many religious paintings, such as crucifixion scenes, martyrdom, Adam and Eve, Bathsheba and the many saints. Artists could broach the subject of pain and pleasure in one painting under the accepted charade of mythology and Christianity, subjects that today are labelled under the term fetish. St Sebastian is one such saint; a beautiful young man is depicted, often tied up and shot full of arrows. His arms are raised to accentuate his waistline and virile muscular body. A true gay icon. Another saint who willingly accepts pain and pleasure is St Agnes. She is pictured nude while having her nipples tweaked with red hot pincers. The list of saints goes on.

Society would not accept erotic subject matter that deviated from the mythological and religious theme. Titian painted nudes under the guise of mythology, such as Venus of Urbino 1538, which was well received by the public. However, when Manet created Olympia in 1865, an incredibly similar painting in subject matter and composition to the Titian work, it created outrage. This is solely due to the lady in the painting. She was not taken from mythology as the title implies, but Manet had chosen to depict an obviously contemporary woman, recognizable to the viewer of the time.

The privately commissioned mythological erotica was intended initially for the private sector only, yet with the advent of print these types of work were brought to the masses and with that a need for the artist to push for the more explicit themes in order to sell more prints.

Although the depiction of homosexual love was forbidden until the 2nd half of the 20th century, this did not apply to lesbian love. Used within the mythological boundaries, female love has featured regularly and appears to appeal to the male viewer because it doesn't threaten their manliness. Women bathing together was a popular theme or lying together in what was assumed post-orgasmic slumber. The male voyeur was meant to enter into the fantasy of the art work, thinking females only resorted to this sort of behaviour due to the lack of an available male; perhaps the voyeur could help out?!

Many artists used the brothel as inspiration for their art. Degas, Lautrec, Picasso and Shiele to name a few. Lautrec completed many lesbian depictions based on the great Parisian brothels as did Degas. Egon Shiele specialized in erotic depictions of ladies using anatomical truth and honesty rather than the fashionable idealied beauty. In this tradition is Gustave Courbet's Origin of the World, 1866, which is executed with groundbreaking realism. As the 20th century dawned, more and more artists used the erotic as a theme. Drawing on writers such as Freud, and earlier ones such as Ovid, Dante and the Marquis de Sade, artists such as Dali and Duchamp teased the viewer with wild sexual fantasy and imagery.

The pin-up art of the 40s and 50s, the pop art movement of the 1960s, modern artists such as Jeff Koons all use erotic imagery as a marketing tool. Either to shock, provoke or sell, artists use erotica to criticize and tease modern society. Advertising uses erotic images all the time. Think of the Marlboro Man of old, Haagen-Daz ice cream, Wonderbra using the breasts of Eva Herzigova to tempt the buyer and companies like French Connection using the sexually suggestive tag lines FCUK or SXE to sell their clothes. However society looks upon erotica, one thing is certain: erotica sells.