Illuminated initial I

n the standard accepted history of the nineteenth century, the idea of erotic elements in art challenged rigid Victorian behavioral norms. The erotic represents aestheticzised sexual symbols, defining the degree of sexuality that is permissible within the category of the aesthetic. Victorian culture is often associated with prudery, repressiveness, and imbalanced gender roles. The stereotype of Victorian prudery most likely derived from puritanical Evangelical religion, which dominated Great Britain for much of the nineteenth century. This dynamic, emotional religion, which was largely responsible for the abolishment of slavery, prison reform, and other social improvements, also enforced strict rules of social behavior to preserve their notion of moral and spiritual health. Thus, censorship of the arts. The resurgence of Ancient Greek and Roman culture, although extremely important to most academic circles, proved just as problematic for the Evangelicals inside and outside the Established Church as it had for the early Christians. In the eyes of the early and Victorian Church, the art of antiquity was too closely associated with the moral and social impurity of paganism.

Despite the acceptance of the nude figure in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and eighteenth-century France, Victorian England could not overcome its prudish Evangelicalism and accept the nude figure in a contemporary setting. The nude figure was not considered a natural form of beauty, as it had been revered in these earlier times, but rather a source of embarrassment. An unclothed body, whether male or female, was always considered naked and never nude. In Kenneth Clarks' The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, the art historian ascribes the reason for this dichotomy, he notes,

The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude," on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art. (3) In the volatile Victorian culture, artists and critics were forced to find a way to separate beauty from sexuality. Their initial attempts to cast out sexuality completely, resulted in highly repressed works, but to the censor's chagrin, audiences still found a way to project a sense of the erotic onto even the tamest subjects. Erotic art's subjective quality allows any work to develop a sexual charge. It is the viewer and his response to a work which produces the erotic.

The definition of the word erotic — "of or devoted to, or tending to arouse sexual desire" — revealws how it is difficult to summarize the erotic or its mechanisms of action, which are as diverse and ambiguous as they are controversial. For this reason, Victorian artists were able to recreate a sense of eroticism with hidden elements. Depending on the setting of the subjects, or their social role, artists found ways to veil the erotic elements and create socially acceptable works.

Although it can be said, Victorian ideology was sexually inhibiting, I believe that the Victorian era produced more inventive forms of eroticism than it has been given credit for. The Michel Foucault classified the productive constraints of ideology as inspiring creative responses, finding unexpected resources with which to author and authorize unconventional pleasures. The division of sexuality between the groups of licit and illicit and normative and deviant identities created many new dynamic, nuanced, and multifaceted works. The categorized identities of the period: the prostitute, the fallen woman, the modest woman, the heroic male and the homosexual, provide clues to the cultural ideals of the Victorian era.

The erotic in Victorian art is an enormously complex subject, involving vast amounts of information several possible paradigms. I have therefore undertaken an idiosyncratic exploratory approach to the idea of the erotic in Victorian art. My analysis will discuss the categories of (1) the influence of Pompeii's erotic art on the Victorian Culture, (2) the treatment of the male nude, (3) the ideas and categorization of female sexuality, and finally I will discuss (4) the recurring theme of female slavery and its erotic premise. Throughout the paper I attempt to stress the distinctive context specific nature of these works while at the same time emphasizing their cultural importance.


Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

Last modified 18 May 2007