For those whose prism is resolutely contemporary, the era before the 20th century seems - in the arts, at least - to have been high-minded, staid, serious and not at all as interesting as the racy and profane era that followed. Yet the arts have always reflected - nay, nurtured - the deeply human erotic instinct that leads to survival and reproduction of the species. In fact, eroticism in art before the 20th century was so pervasive that there is no single specialist at Sotheby's who deals with it, for it has appeared in whatever form art has taken: paintings, sculpture, drawings, book illustration, even timepieces. Art has always existed to tell a human story, and sex has always been a part of that story.
Consider what really drew the respectable bourgeois of Victorian England or the Second French Empire to the Royal Academy or the Salon on a Sunday afternoon: in an age in which women of virtually any social class were covered in clothes of all description up to the neck and down to the floor, the category of 'allegorical' painting or mythological subject matter allowed masters such as William Bouguereau to titillate his audiences with acres of naked, rubicund, perfectly formed female flesh. From chaste goddesses flaunting their perfection to nymphs looking the viewer straight in the eye, the erotic charge is palpable.
In Victorian Britain, pictures such as Andromeda by Sir Edward John Poynter, Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Venus Disrobing for the Bath by Frederic Lord Leighton were erotic classics that were shocking in their day. In the case of Andromeda, the artist was using a classical excuse to present nudity and seems to revel in the more titillating aspects, notably presenting her entirely nude with the suggestion of ecstasy at her bondage. We find her chained to the rocks waiting to be rescued by Perseus from the sea monster, according to the mythological tale, which alone made the shocking image palatable to a staid British audience. I'm reliably informed that there was no specification in the myth that Andromeda was naked at the time of her dilemma, but perhaps Poynter believed, as Oscar Wilde did, that 'to be really Greek one should have no clothes'.
At least Andromeda has a fully developed classical narrative behind it. Leighton's Venus Disrobing for the Bath is simply a putative goddess in the form of a woman taking her clothes off for the viewer, who then becomes a voyeur spying on her. Is this Victorian high classicism or pandering to a baser instinct? Venus Verticordia was Rossetti's most erotic and explicit picture, complemented by symbols indicating fullness and ripeness - including the golden apple (or apple of discord), the symbol of temptation associated with Helen of Troy, the star of one of the most controversial sex scandals in history, which saw the two most powerful nations on earth go to war over who would bed a woman.
Rossetti's conceit was that Venus Verticordia had the power to turn men's minds and hearts from chastity. The picture is calculated to make Venus's male viewers feel aroused, which showed they'd taken in the meaning of the history lesson, after all. Rossetti shocked even further by putting a halo around her head, the link with the Madonna essentially glorifying sin and lust. It's noteworthy that a pillar of Victorian society, William Graham, MP for Glasgow, commissioned both the oil and watercolour versions, no doubt so that he could be edified in private by Venus's charms. It's not surprising that appetite for such material was vociferous at a time when an exposed piano leg was deemed improper due to its potential to titillate.
Lest anyone think our forebears gave no thought to such matters, according to the Classical Canon of Art developed by the French Academy in the 17th century, the highest place in artistic production was occupied by figural history painting (in which the mythological nude was writ large), followed by portraiture, still life, landscape and genre painting. The human figure was considered among the hardest subjects to depict, and the process by which students acquired the requisite skill to do so was regulated by a rigidly controlled process, which began with copying from the antique. The student who reached the pinnacle of success would be awarded the Prix de Rome. Successful academicians exhibited at the Salon.