You may not immediately recognize the name of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, but you would likely recognize his style of illustration- dark, inky drawings that are at times intricate and yet remarkably simple. Beardsley was one of the artists on the front page of the Aesthetic movement, and his style contributed greatly to the Art Noveau posters in the 20th century.
Beardsley was born on August 21, 1872 in Brighton, England, to a working class family. He was a sickly lad and by the age of nine had suffered from his first bout with tuberculosis. By 1883, Beardsley and his family moved to London and found a community open to the pursuit of art. Considered musical prodigies, Beardsley and his sister performed music in public, and in 1885, he composed a play that was performed with other students in his school. The Bristol Grammar School Past and Present published his drawings and cartoons while he was a student.
By the age of sixteen, Beardsley was a part of London’s work force. He continued working at an insurance company until 1891, when art became his primary profession. Professor Fred Brown taught Beardsley in 1892 at the Westminster School of Art.
Aubrey Beardsley did not have many years to devote to his calling. The tuberculosis which caused him to become an invalid many times throughout his short life would ultimately be the cause of his death in 1898.
In those short six years of being a professional artist, Beardsley made quite a name for himself. He was influenced by the ancient art form of Japanese woodcuts that depicted erotic acts (shunga). His own inky drawings reflected the exaggerated features of that art form, glorifying the grotesque, reveling in decadence, and shocking the tight-laced Victorian culture of England with his images of the erotic.
His controversial art quite suited the tone of Oscar Wilde, who commissioned Beardsley to illustrate his tragedy, Salome, which premiered in Paris in 1896. Beardsley was also the ideal illustrator for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, Aristophanes‘ ancient play about a town where the women withhold sex from the men in order to stop a fruitless war.
Because of their sometimes graphic nature, many of his drawings premiered in publications with a small fan base, but despite this limited influence, his art became quite popular and has remained so for over a century. The reason that his fame has lasted so is sometimes attributed to The Yellow Book. Beardsley was art editor of this quarterly journal of art and literature appeared in April 1894, and American Henry Harland was the literary editor. It was often condemned as indecent, but The Yellow Book was otherwise quite popular with the public.
March 1897, one year before his death, Beardsley converted to Catholicism and asked his publisher to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings…by all that is holy all obscene drawings.” His publisher, Leonard Smithers refused to destroy Beardsley’s popular works and in fact, made a tidy profit selling reproductions and forgeries of Beardsley’s work for years to come.
Aubrey Beardsley met his death of tuberculosis in Menton, France, at the age of 25 on March 16, 1898, with his mother and sister at his side and his rosary clasped in hand.