Erotic art  

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“All art is erotic. The first ornament that was born, the cross, was erotic in origin. The first work of art, the first artistic act which the first artist, in order to rid himself of his surplus energy, smeared on the wall. A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her.” --Ornament and Crime, 1910, Adolf Loos

"While preparations were being made, the damsel sat in a room looking up at a certain painting, in which was represented how Jove is said once to have sent a golden shower into the bosom of Danaë." --Terence's Eunuch

This page Erotic art is part of the human sexuality seriesIllustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.
This page Erotic art is part of the human sexuality series
Illustration: Fashionable Contrasts (1792) by James Gillray.
The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

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Erotic art covers any artistic work including paintings, sculptures, photographs, music and writings that is intended to evoke erotic arousal or that depicts scenes of love-making.



Defining erotic art is difficult since perceptions of both what is erotic and what is art fluctuate. For example, a voluptuous nude painting such as Titian's Poesies painted for Philip II of Spain could have been considered erotic when it was created for a private patron in the 17th century. In a different context, a sculpture of a phallus in some African cultures may be considered a traditional symbol of potency though not overtly erotic.

Difference with pornography

erotica and pornography

In addition, a distinction is often made between erotic art and pornography (which also depicts scenes of love-making and is intended to evoke erotic arousal, but is not usually considered art). The distinction may lie in intent and message; erotic art intended as pieces of art, encapturing formal elements of art, and drawing on other historical artworks. Pornography may also use these tools, but is primarily intended to arousal one sexually. Nevertheless, these elements of distinction are highly subjective.

For instance, Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States, in attempting to explain "hard-core" pornography, or what is obscene, famously wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . ."


history of erotic depictions

Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Paleolithic cave paintings such as Shaft of the Dead Man, but many cultures have created erotic art. The ancient Greeks painted sexual scenes on their ceramics such as the Kylix with Erotic Scenes. Many of them were also famous for being some of the earliest depictions of same-sex relations and pederasty, and there are numerous sexually explicit paintings on the walls of ruined Roman buildings in Pompeii. The Priapus in the House of the Vettii being one of the most important examples. The Moche of Peru in South America are another ancient people that sculpted explicit scenes of sex into their pottery.

Additionally, there has been a long tradition of erotic painting among the Eastern cultures. In Japan, for example, shunga appeared in the 13th century and continued to grow in popularity until the late 19th century when photography was invented. Similarly, the erotic art of China reached its popular peak during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. In India, the famous Kama Sutra is an ancient sex manual that is still popularly read throughout the world.

In Europe, starting with the Renaissance, there was a tradition of producing erotica for the amusement of the aristocracy. In the early 16th century, the text I Modi was a woodcut album created by the designer Giulio Romano, the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and the poet Pietro Aretino. In a landmark case, Raimondi was imprisoned by Pope Clement VII and all copies of the illustrations were destroyed.

In 1601 Caravaggio painted the "Love Triumphant," for the collection of the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani. The latter is reputed to have kept it hidden behind a curtain to show only to his friends, as it was seen as a blatant celebration of sodomy.

Perhaps the last painter in this class of erotic artists working for noble patrons was Fragonard, notable for The Swing.


Eros and Modernism, 19th century erotica, 20th century erotica

The tradition of erotic art has been continued by modern painters, such as Courbet, Millet, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and Balthus. Egon Schiele, who served time in jail and had several works destroyed by the authorities for offending turn-of-the-century Austrian mores with his depiction of nude young girls. Klimt also had a run-in with the authorities for his University of Vienna ceiling paintings.

In general, modernism, with its emphasis on the cult of ugliness, has been unkind towards eroticism.

Classic "war-era" pin-ups like the works of Alberto Vargas and Gil Elvgren, are still as popular as their contemporaries: Olivia De Berardinis, Hajime Sorayama, Alain Aslan and others.

The acceptance and popularity of erotic art has pushed the genre into mainstream pop-culture and has created many famous icons. Frank Frazetta, Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Chris Achilleos, and Clyde Caldwell are among the artists whose work has been widely distributed.


In 1968 the Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen organized the exhibition The First International Exhibition of Erotic Art. In the 2000s, there were two exhibitions dedicated to erotic art: Seduced: Art & Sex from Antiquity to Now (2007-8) in London and Diana und Actaeon - Der verbotene Blick auf die Nacktheit (2008-9) in Dusseldorf.

Legal standards

Whether or not an instance of erotic art is obscene depends on the standards of the community in which it is displayed. Already in the Middle Ages, Saint Augustine complained of the eroticism found in Terence's Eunuchus.

However, the first obscenity trials due to depictions of eroticism would not take place until the 19th century.

In the United States, the 1973 ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States in Miller v. California established a three-tiered test to determine what was obscene - and thus not protected, versus what was merely erotic and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote,
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

As this is still, almost by necessity, much more vague than other judicial tests within U.S. jurisprudence, it has not reduced the conflicts that often result, especially from the ambiguities concerning what the "contemporary community standards" are. Similar difficulties in distinguishing between erotica and obscenity have been found in almost every legal system in the world.

Selected list of erotic paintings

See also


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