Erotic Art

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Erotic Art

Erotic art consists of any genre of art that renders or suggests sexual love or excites feelings of sexual pleasure and desire. Some works of art produce sexual feelings as an effect of their rendition of facial expressions, gestures, the color and relations of objects, or the arrangement of clothing, without necessarily depicting overtly sexual subject matter or nudity. In these works, erotic feelings may be produced as an effect of the aesthetic operations of the work itself. In this way paintings or sculptures of religious subjects (Michelangelo's David [1504], for example), still lifes, or landscapes may evoke erotic feelings in their viewers. Other works of art depict sexual activities or nudity directly, suggesting their intention to stimulate an erotic response, although not all nudity or depiction of sexual activity might actually provoke erotic feelings in viewers. Whether or not a work is erotic may depend as much on the context in which the work is perceived as on the subject matter or what the artist meant to say.

The term erotic derives from the name of the Greek god of love, Eros. Art refers to painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, glass, prints, etchings, or other forms of artistry whose construction, effect, and/or purpose are primarily aesthetic. Although the erotic, the obscene, and the pornographic may all portray sexual behaviors, and although all may be erotic in that they excite sexual feelings, the term erotic art refers generally to works that, when taken as a whole, constitute an aesthetic contribution to the tradition of fine art. Erotic art is considered a part of a culture's artistic tradition; both obscenity and pornography exist as either outlawed or merely tolerated manifestations of a lower form of culture. These categories are changeable: what might have been considered obscene or pornographic at one point in time or in one culture might at another point in history or in another culture be considered fine art.

Erotic art has been a part of human expression from the most ancient times. Art linked to fertility rites, such as statues of erect phalluses and fecund women and images of sexual activity, celebrated reproduction. Artifacts from very ancient cultures throughout the world are examples of the centrality of sexuality in primitive rites and cultures. Because these artifacts were a part of ritual they may not have been considered art in the modern sense of the word, nor would they seem erotic in so far as the term has come to represent pleasure as opposed to reproductive necessity. The discovery and collection of these artifacts by museums and collectors may, however, alter the way they are enjoyed.


Pottery, sculpture, and paintings from such ancient cultures as Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, and the Far East feature images of copulation and nudity both in the lives of deities and the everyday practices of rulers and nobles or anyone deemed sufficiently important to portray. In Egypt papyrus scrolls and murals represented the sexual practices of various gods, including explicit renditions of genitalia, a variety of heterosexual sexual positions, fellatio, and cunnilingus. Greece took the erotic as an everyday activity, painting images of various forms of overtly heterosexual and homosexual behaviors on walls and pottery, including items used in the home on a daily basis such as terra cotta lamps, vases, bowls, and dishes used by children. Greek statues depicted male and female nudity; and statues bearing large erect phalluses were situated by the sides of roads and at intersections. Rome followed the erotic aesthetics of the Greeks, painting wall murals of a variety of modes of sexual activity. When the art of Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, it was considered so obscene that it was sequestered in private museums, where much of it remains. Roman statues and everyday items featured nudity and oversized erections. Everyday items, including the seal used by Roman Emperor Claudius and his consort Messalina and early Christian crosses, depicted multiple phalluses arranged in designs. In India and the Far East, erotic art appeared in manuscripts as well as on temple walls, with versions of a similar range of the same overtly sexual practices and nudity seen in Europe.

Even through the Middle Ages, architecture featured apotropaic versions of genitalia in church and town architecture, situated to ward off evil. Medieval manuscripts, particularly those containing saint's lives, depicted the gruesome sexual tribulations of St. Agatha, St. Anthony, and other saints whose sufferings included sadomasochistic behaviors or sexual sins. Manuscripts of bawdy secular literature such as the tales of Renard the Fox, the folk tale trickster, provided illustrations of sexual situations and acts. The idea of sexual behavior as a normal part of daily life, however, had disappeared as the ascetism and denial of Christianity took over in Europe. As fine art became increasingly devoted to religious subjects, its eroticism became more veiled.


As skill and technique in painting improved during the Renaissance, greater attention to the rendition of the human figure permitted the expression of physical details and arrangements that might be considered overtly erotic—a seminude breast, for example, or a nearly nude soldier. Pagan subjects afforded the opportunity to depict more openly sexual scenes and renewed interest in the classics revivified the lives of Greek and Roman deities, whose sexual peccadilloes became legitimate subjects for erotic art. Rape, seduction, and nudity associated with pagan figures could be legitimate features of paintings produced mainly for the wealthy. Although overt nudity and images of sexual activity had typified the erotic productions of classical times, in the Renaissance the eroticism of painting became more subtle, more a matter of discerning desire in a smile, or a gap in clothing, or in the suggestion of a seduction to come.

The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries shifted interest in erotic art from pleasure to a quest for information about sexual behaviors. Erotic subject matter in art after the Renaissance was divided into two large genres: fine art paintings produced for the wealthy and satirical prints and etchings designed for common folk. Private art, which primarily took the form of painting, often depicted images of the boudoir, presented as keyhole spyings on the unfettered activities of women—women cleaning themselves on a bidet, women half undressed, women displaying signs of recent sexual activity. French rococo painter François Boucher (1703–1770) executed erotic paintings for Louis XV, while his student, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) fashioned voluptuous boudoir figure studies. French satirical etchings portrayed everything from sadomasochism to group sex, though there was very little rendition of homosexual subject matter and most of the cavorting figures were clothed. English artists Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and William Hogarth (1697–1764) produced paintings and engravings depicting sexual activity, such as Hogarth's The Rake's Progress (1735). Flagellation also became a regular subject of English erotic drawings. Many of Rowlandson's drawings were made expressly for royalty, while Hogarth's more didactic works enjoyed widespread distribution.

In the nineteenth century, a rising middle-class market for paintings encouraged artists, who, often as a part of forward-looking or avant-garde thinking, gradually shifted the depiction of eroticism from the actions of pagan gods to more natural and realistic portrayals of sex among modern people. Gradually abandoning the symbolic depictions of sexuality codified symbolically in everything from the state of flowers to the disposition of clothing, the significance of postures, and the ways gestures might indicate sexual gratification, artists moved towards a greater realism. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, figures in paintings (except pagan gods) were still mostly clothed, but by mid century more of the body was revealed. Some French artists such as the neoclassical Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), in his painting Le Bain Turc (1862), and Achille Devérias (1805–1857), deployed the notion of the harem as a pretext for images of naked women engaged in sexual activity among themselves. The introduction of the cancan, a dance in which high kicking legs revealed the dancer's underwear, helped initiate the gradual denuding of the female figure. Caricaturist Honoré Daumier (1808–1879) used renditions of overt sexual behavior as a mode of satirical social protest. Édouard Manet (1832–1883), in his famous Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), depicted a luncheon in a park with one completely naked woman sitting with two fully clothed men while another woman bathes in an adjoining stream.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, painters also began focusing on prostitutes and entertainers as serious subjects of their art. Gustave Courbert's (1819–1877) naturalistic renderings of female genitalia and lesbian sex (as for example in The Sleepers [1866]), Edgar Degas' (1834–1917) frank paintings and drawings of bordellos and the activities of their inhabitants, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's (1864–1901) often satirical renditions of prostitutes and their clients made overt sexuality a far more common subject for artistic rendition, though many of their drawings did not circulate widely. Clothed figures gave way to increasingly naked figures, particularly the prostitutes who were the subject of the painters' sympathetic portrayals.

With the end of the nineteenth century, the impressionism of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) introduced a different kind of eroticism in paintings—that of a visual joy of women's flesh. Renoir's work contrasted with the hedonistic and decorative pen and ink drawings produced by Englishman Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) and German Michael von Zichy (1827–1885). As scholars in the late nineteenth century became interested in sexuality as an object of academic study, social mores around sexuality began to relax, slowly at first. Artists began to understand artistic production as more than decorative, seeing it, as the surrealists did, as more an expression of unconscious thoughts and desires. Pre-censorship, the practice that permitted agents of the government to remove an art work from public display, also began to disappear. Notions of painting began to escape the conventional forms of portraiture, historical scene, landscape, and still life to explore impressions of light (impressionism), impressions of space (cubism), impressions of color and shape (abstract art), and to expand the subject of art to the entire field of the visible. Avant-garde movements such as Dada, surrealism, and expressionism moved art from the representational into more abstract forms that, despite the absence of discernable or realistically rendered figures, could still evoke erotic feeling.

Work like that of Renoir led the way to Pablo Picasso's (1881–1973) erotic drawings of female nudes. Picasso executed erotic drawings throughout his career, but he produced his most overtly erotic series of drawings during the last five years of his life. The French avant-gardist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) produced several famous erotic paintings, including the cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, #2 (1912) and the multimedia work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). Surrealism, which exploited automatic or unconscious thoughts of the artist, introduced a style of hyperrealistic, fantasy painting that combined disjointed or disconnected objects from many different contexts, often merging them in unlikely forms. Body parts, fantastical beings, and everyday objects expressed the unconscious erotics of many painters, including the French painter André Masson (1896–1987); the Spanish painters Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), Juan Gris (1887–1927), and Joan Miró (1893–1983); the Belgian René Magritte (1898–1967), whose painting Le Viol (1934) superimposed the features of a nude female torso on a blank face; the Swiss painter Paul Klee (1879–1940); the Russian-born French painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985); and the German Hans Bellmer (1902–1975).

Surrealist style and philosophy, with its emphasis on the unconscious, led to the development of styles of fantasy painting. Still hyperrealistic in their rendition of bodies and objects, artists such as the Belgian Paul Delvaux (1897–1994), the German artist Ernst Fuchs (1940–), and American Paul Wunderlich (1927–) produced paintings of fantastic or imaginary scenes that included highly developed, dream-like images of nude women and overt sexual activity.

By the mid twentieth century, early century avantgardism had culminated in the Pop art of Andy Warhol (1928–1987), whose silk screen images of cultural icons and whose films often featured overt eroticism. The hyperrealism of the surrealists developed into a new realism in painting in which sexual activities were rendered in stark, clean detail by such sculptors as American John De Andrea (1941–), famous for making life-size plastic nude statues embellished with real human hair; the French painter Jean-Marie Poumeyrol (1946–); British painters Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) and Graham Ovenden (1943–), famous for his paintings of Lolita-like nymphettes; and Americans Dan Douke (1943–), Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004), with his series of paintings Great American Nude, and Larry Rivers (1923–2002). Realism merged easily into styles that looked more like commercial art, and painters began to take on the glossy style of advertising images as a way of satirizing the commercialization of sex and beauty, while at the same time producing commercially viable art. The British artist Allen Jones (1937–) produced images of women in lingerie, garter belts, and other sexualized undergarments as a way of satirizing the fetishizing of women. American Mel Ramos (1935–) used the conventions of commercial calendar art in his realistic paintings of nudes. Tom of Finland, the pseudonym of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920–1991), is famous for his drawings of gay male life, which combined elements of realism and fantasy.

While realism became one mode of erotic art, decorative art in the style of Austrian Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) became another, often less overtly sexual but sinuous and suggestively erotic art. Klimt, Englishman Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), and French artist Didier Moreau (1934–) used line and decoration to convey attitude and desire. Klimt's friend Egon Schiele (1890–1918) painted angular nudes.

Few female artists have produced erotic art in the tradition of male erotica. Americans Sherana Harriette Frances (dates unknown) and Clara Tice (1888–1973) created overtly erotic imagery. Several lesbian artists, including Tee A. Corinne (1943–2006), are noted for erotic depictions of women.


Asian cultures have produced erotic art throughout history. India has a long tradition of a serious study of sex, stemming from the Kama sutra as well as tantric sex practices, depicted in conventionalized drawings and paintings of stoic copulating couples. China and Japan each have a history of erotic art, like India, going back to ancient times. In the eighteenth century, while European artists began to depict erotic behavior among everyday people, artists in China instead treated erotic subjects in a formal manner. In large portraits of multiple daily activities, copulating couples were often imaged off to the side, a minor part of the whole picture. At the same time, Japan had continued to develop a robust set of formats for erotic expression. Shunga, paintings styled upon springtime fertility rituals, often featured the enlarged genitals of both males and females. Ukiyo-e was a more decorative and less visually dynamic erotic art aimed at common people. Netsuke were miniature carvings of sexual scenes.

In the nineteenth century, an emphasis on the value of the group and the discouragement of individual expression in China cultivated mainly the repetition of previous erotic conventions in art, in which sexual activities were marginalized and participants were rarely unclothed, although there were some nude paintings involving group sex and voyeurism. The same artistic stagnation also occurred in nineteenth century India. Japan, however, had begun exploring the larger world and had nurtured such erotic masters as the shunga painter Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) and ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Japanese erotic art was dynamic, open, and naked, featuring hyperbolically-sized genitalia and figures that exceeded the frames of the paintings, which depicted everything from heterosexual coitus to women using dildos.


Bertholet, Ferdinand. 2003. Gardens of Pleasure: Eroticism and Art in China, trans. David Radzinowicz. New York: Prestel.

Fagioli, Marco. 1998. Shunga: The Erotic Art of Japan. New York: Universe.

Lewis, Marilyn Jaye, and Maxim Jakubowski, eds. 2002. The Mammoth Book of Illustrated Erotica. New York: Carroll and Graf.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. 2003. Erotica: The Fine Art of Sex. New York: Hylas.

Pinkney, Andrea. 2002. The Kama Sutra Illuminated: Erotic Art of India. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

                                                 Judith Roof