Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley in a Striking Modern Aesthetic (1894)


In William Faulkner’s 1936 Absa­lom, Absa­lom!, one of the novel’s most eru­dite char­ac­ters paints a pic­ture of a Goth­ic scene by com­par­ing it to an Aubrey Beard­s­ley draw­ing. Ref­er­ences to Beard­s­ley also appear in oth­er Faulkn­er nov­els, and the Eng­lish artist of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry also influ­enced the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist’s visu­al art. Like Faulkn­er, Beard­s­ley was irre­sistibly drawn to “the grotesque and the erot­ic,” as The Paris Review writes, and his work was high­ly favored among French and British poets of his day. The mod­ernist’s appre­ci­a­tion of Beard­s­ley was about more than Faulkner’s own youth­ful romance with French Sym­bol­ist art and mor­bid roman­tic verse, how­ev­er. Beard­s­ley cre­at­ed a mod­ern Goth­ic aes­thet­ic that came to rep­re­sent both Art Nou­veau and deca­dent, trans­gres­sive lit­er­a­ture for decades to come, pre­sent­ing a seduc­tive visu­al chal­lenge to the repres­sion of Vic­to­ri­an respectabil­i­ty.


Beard­s­ley was a young aes­thete with a lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion. In his short career—he died at the age of 25—he illus­trat­ed many of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, fore­fa­ther of the Amer­i­can Goth­ic.

Beard­s­ley also famous­ly illus­trat­ed Oscar Wilde’s scan­dalous dra­ma, Salome in 1893, to the sur­prise of its author, who lat­er inscribed an illus­trat­ed copy with the words, “For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Sev­en Veils is, and can see that invis­i­ble dance.” Beard­s­ley’s draw­ings first appeared in an art mag­a­zine called The Stu­dio, then the fol­low­ing year in an Eng­lish pub­li­ca­tion of the text.


Beard­s­ley and Wilde’s joint cre­ation embraced the macabre and flaunt­ed Vic­to­ri­an sex­u­al norms. After an abrupt can­cel­la­tion of Salome’s planned open­ing in Eng­land, the illus­trat­ed edi­tion intro­duced British read­ers to the play’s unset­tling themes. The British Library quotes crit­ic Peter Raby, who argues, “Beard­s­ley gave the text its first true pub­lic and mod­ern per­for­mance, plac­ing it firm­ly with­in the 1890s – a dis­turb­ing frame­work for the dark ele­ments of cru­el­ty and eroti­cism, and of the delib­er­ate ambi­gu­i­ty and blur­ring of gen­der, which he released from Wilde’s play as though he were open­ing Pandora’s box.”


Wilde’s play was osten­si­bly banned for its por­tray­al of Bib­li­cal char­ac­ters, pro­hib­it­ed on stage at the time. Fur­ther­more, it “struck a nerve,” writes Yele­na Pri­morac at Vic­to­ri­an Web, with its “por­tray­al of woman in extreme oppo­si­tion to the tra­di­tion­al notion of vir­tu­ous, pure, clean and asex­u­al wom­an­hood the Vic­to­ri­ans felt com­fort­able liv­ing with.” Wilde was at first con­cerned that the illus­tra­tions, with their sug­ges­tive­ly posed fig­ures and frankly sex­u­al and vio­lent images, would “reduce the text to the role of ‘illus­trat­ing Aubrey’s illus­tra­tions.’” (You can see some of the more sug­ges­tive images here.)


Indeed, it is hard to think of Wilde’s text and Beardsley’s images as exist­ing inde­pen­dent­ly of each oth­er, so close­ly have they been iden­ti­fied for over a hun­dred years. And yet the draw­ings don’t always cor­re­spond to the nar­ra­tive. Instead they present a kind of par­al­lel text, itself dense­ly woven with visu­al and lit­er­ary allu­sions, many of them drawn from Sym­bol­ist preoccupations—with women’s hair, for exam­ple, as an allur­ing and threat­en­ing emblem of unre­strained female sex­u­al­i­ty. Pub­lished in full in 1894, in an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Wilde’s orig­i­nal French text, the Beard­s­ley-illus­trat­ed Salome con­tained 16 plates, some of them tamed or cen­sored by the pub­lish­ers. Read the full text, with draw­ings, here, and see a gallery of Beardsley’s orig­i­nal uncen­sored illus­tra­tions at the British Library.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

Stephen Fry Reads Oscar Wilde’s Children’s Sto­ry “The Hap­py Prince”

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Alber­to Martini’s Haunt­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1901–1944)

Pablo Picasso’s Ten­der Illus­tra­tions For Aristo­phanes’ Lysis­tra­ta (1934)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.