Victorian erotic art

Sub/Dom Pre-Raphaelite paintingLet’s start with a caveat: I’m not a historian of any sort, much less an art historian. I dabble in research for fun, because that’s the kind of geek I am, but I lay no claims to being a professional. So this isn’t an essay or a term paper. I’m just going to look at a bunch of cool images and share my thoughts.

The vast majority of the Victorian erotic art I’ve found on the web is photography. Frankly, I’m surprised. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was in that era, and they were quite controversial. To be fair, this had more to do with their rebellion against the current art conventions at the time, but the work also showed changing attitudes toward sexuality. There were a number of nudes, and most of their work was quite sensual, clothed or not. Aubrey Beardsley, in particular, penned some very shocking pieces (and amusing—the naughty drawing of a woman farting on a nude man cracked me up). This is the one that speaks to me most. I find the sub/Dom dynamic arousing, as well as the obvious emotion. Plus, I’m a sucker for romance. The rich detail, color, and textures are also deliciously sensual.

Victoriran erotic photoI suppose the prevalence of photography isn’t too surprising, considering the fact that it was a new technology, and everybody wanted to experiment with it. They had a lot of fun with props and costumes, which I love. Cupids, Egyptian queens, harems, nature settings, boudoirs, fainting couches…speaking of fainting couches, a lot of the women appear to be swooning. Overcome with sexual desire? Post-orgasmic bliss? Or maybe just helplessly waiting to be ravished? Underwear was popular, too. Corsets, pantaloons, stockings, things that we’d consider pretty tame today, but were quite forbidden back then.

I found very few erotic or even nude photos of men. The ones I did find weren’t classified as erotica, but as “male figure studies.” They weren’t any less titillating than a lot of the female nudes, which were considered to be Victorian eroticaerotica, so I guess part of it was a double standard. When I did a search for Victorian porn, though, I found plenty of men. Those Victorians weren’t nearly as repressed as their reputation! These images were every bit as explicit as today’s porn, enough so that I don’t feel comfortable posting them here. In the non-pornographic pieces with men, they were usually with a woman, and one or both was at least partially clothed. I find this particular image quite erotic, more so than the nudes. I doubt you’re surprised by that, if you’ve read my previous posts. I like to see some sort of emotional expression, a connection between the two people. Intimacy. Since they’re sitting next to an unmade bed, it’s obvious what’s been going on. Maybe the fact that the more explicit details are left to my imagination plays a part in why I find it so sexy.

male nude figure studyA lot of the female nudes could be characterized as nude studies, in my opinion. They remind me of what I said about Mapplethorpe’s nudes being beautiful but not necessarily arousing. But that’s my concept of arousing, and I dare say a lot of people, especially Victorian men, would disagree.

One of the things I like about Victorian erotic photography is that so often the subjects look like they’re having fun. I mean, honestly having fun, not acting cute or making centerfold-fake-sexy faces. There’s an innocence there that’s just charming. Another thing I find appealing is the variety of body types. Their concept of beauty appears to have been much broader than ours is today. (Clearly, I am living in the wrong century!)

Victorian kinkVictorian Burlesque performerAnd then there’s the kink. The Victorians certainly earned their reputation for that. There are plenty of images of caning and spanking. There were actually brothels that specialized in flagellation. Some people speculate that the public caning in boarding schools is the source of all that eroticized corporal punishment. I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes sense to me. A bunch of guys gathered around to watch another with his pants down? Squirming as he gets caned? And these kids were in their formative years, when sexuality is just beginning to develop. But that’s not the only kink. I was a bit shocked by the animals. I found some pictures of people with animal heads, having sex. Dogs, foxes, a wolf and a lamb, good heavens. Check out this image from a burlesque musical. Gotta love the ponyplay.

Victorian death erotica

Erotica and the Victorian fascination with death

I’ll finish with the death erotica. I suppose it was inevitable that the Victorian culture of death would collide with their sexuality. They appear to have been obsessed with death. The mourning rituals were extensive, and death iconography abounded. (I’m not talking about necrophilia, by the way. I didn’t see anything about that. Thank goodness.) It sounded kind of creepy to me at first, but then I thought about the whole Goth thing we’ve got going today, which can be very sexy. And what are vampires if not a combination of death and sex? The French call orgasms “le petit mort,” the little death. And it’s common knowledge that brushes with death are often followed by a powerful urge for sex. So combining the two in erotica isn’t all that strange. This image struck me as particularly artistic, full of symbolism.

When I started researching this topic, I expected to find Victorian erotica sweet and rather innocent, and much of it is. But there’s plenty of kink, and holy cow, the porn! Like any form of art, erotica reflects the culture of the people. I feel I’ve got a new I insight into that era. It might have been more fun to live back then than I had assumed.

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