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The Artistry of Dark Erotica
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"The Flowers of Evil" "St. Theresa"
Delacroix's Erotic Death Paintings
In my last column, I posted a picture of my copy of Charles Baudelaire's "The Flowers of Evil", the
cover of which is decorated with a painting of a dead courtesan, by Eugene Delacroix. That was far
from the only time Delacroix (1798-1863) found his inspiration in the subject of erotic death. Here is
more from that painting, which ironically enough does not portray a scene from Baudelaire, but from
Lord Byron: his "The Death of Sardanapalus".
To the left is another courtesan, this one about to have
her throat cut, and above are some sketch studies of
the woman dead and splayed across the bed of the
king. The basis of the story is that King Sardanapalus,
about to be overthrown by an insurrection, gathers all
of his court of women (along with much of his wealth),
slaughters the courtesans, and burns the rest, along
Quite an exit! And Delacroix hardly took a disinterested approach to the allure of female erotic death in
the painting -- his depictions are painstaking and passionate. Here is the painting in full:
As an orgy of sensual death, this image is hard to top, even in today's far more permissive art world.
And this was not a one-time interest for Delacroix. Here are some of his further works:
"A Christian Martyr Drowned During the Reign of Diocletian"
"The Death of Ophelia"
Sublime creations, that certainly demonstrate that the eroticism of death has been a source of
inspiration for great artworks from this classical master. Here is a little more about Delacroix, from the
Wikipedia entry about his life:
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) was a French Romantic artist
regarded from the outset of his career as the leader of the French Romantic school. Delacroix's use of
expressive brushstrokes and his study of the optical effects of colour profoundly shaped the work of the
Impressionists, while his passion for the exotic inspired the artists of the Symbolist movement. A fine
lithographer, Delacroix illustrated various works of William Shakespeare, the Scottish writer Walter Scott
and the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In contrast to the Neoclassical perfectionism of his chief rival Ingres, Delacroix took for his inspiration the
art of Rubens and painters of the Venetian Renaissance, with an attendant emphasis on colour and
movement rather than clarity of outline and carefully modeled form. Dramatic and romantic content
characterized the central themes of his maturity, and led him not to the classical models of Greek and
Roman art, but to travel in North Africa, in search of the exotic. Friend and spiritual heir to Théodore
Géricault, Delacroix was also inspired by Lord Byron, with whom he shared a strong identification with
the "forces of the sublime", of nature in often violent action.
However, Delacroix was given neither to sentimentality nor bombast, and his Romanticism was that of an
individualist. In the words of Baudelaire, "Delacroix was passionately in love with passion, but coldly
determined to express passion as clearly as possible."
A fascinating man. I wonder what he would have thought to see places like Chris' Corner and other
erotica noir community boards and forums embracing "passion in violent action" today?
"The Death of Desdemona"
Comment from: Paul Smith
Date: April 15, 2012
A fascinating man indeed. Delacroix certainly looks like "one of us", one for
whom eroticism and death were intimately intertwined. It is interesting but
not surprising that Delacroix was a leader in the Romantic movement, or that
he inspired the Symbolists, who also recognized the eroticism of death.
I suspect that Delacroix would appreciate not only our recognition of that
connection, but also your own efforts, and those of others, to increase the
artistic quality of present-day dark erotica.
Comment from: Nastassja
Date: April 15, 2012
Seeing the interwoven dark creations of the writers and artists you've
displayed here truly is fascinating, Othello. I had seen Delacroix's
Shakespeare work before (I'm a devoted follower of Shakespeare, particularly
Hamlet), but I'd never seen these others. The Byron piece is fabulously
intense, and the painting of the bound, drowned martyr is really
transcendently beautiful, even to an atheist like me. What strikes me here is
the deep bond from that time between writing and art, with artists seeking
with such focus for inspiration from like-minded writers: Delacroix/Byron,
Delacroix/Goethe,etc. I wonder if such a connection would be possible today,
with such a vast explosion of mediums and multitude of (often mediocre,
alas) creators in our polyglot world.
Paul, you mentioned Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther" in your
comment on Othello's Baudelaire article -- I've long been entranced with the
"Sturm and Drang" period of German literature, and it certainly ties in with
what you aptly characterize as arts where eroticism and death are intimately
intertwined. I've read that Werther's obsessive erotic attraction in the book,
to Charlotte, which drove him to consider the options of murdering her or
killing himself, captivated readers at the time to the point where many
romantics committed "copycat" suicides. What power all of this has on the
psyche, then and now!
Comment from: Paul Smith
Date: April 17, 2012
Nastassja, I have also read of the "Werther suicides" which were so common
during the "Sturm und Drang" era. The "Werther Fever" was a testament to
the power of Goethe's writing, and also to the linkage of eroticism, emotion,
Of course, suicide has long been seen very differently among European
intellectuals of several different eras than it is among present-day
Americans. It was accepted and romanticized to a degree that most modern
Americans find incomprehensible.
Since my own fantasies include a substantial component of romantic suicide,
I find the older, European view more congenial.
Comment from: Nastassja
Date: April 21, 2012
Paul, I have to agree with your assessment of the American concept of
suicide; it's true that our culture rejects it almost wholly as a tragic waste,
even in artistic treatments like books and movies. As a fantasy, I find my own
attraction to it very strong as an erotic scenario (far more so than the typical
serial killer/victim formula that seems to drive the death/sex video genre). Of
course this manifests in my love of works like Goethe's Werther, as well as
the grand opus of suicide tales, Hamlet. The Japanese approach to the
eroticism of suicide also entrances me; the finest example I've found being
Mishima's "Patriotism", which explores with exquisite, loving detail the
"perfect deaths" of a young couple who both commit suicide after the man, a
young soldier of high ideals, feels himself disgraced by his involvement in a
failed coup. I often imagine myself re-enacting the role of Reiko (the stoically
brave wife who follows her husband in death) in my own fantasy moments of
sexual stimulation. Of course the fact that the author, Mishima, also
committed suicide at the height of his career, lends an edge beyond even
literature and fantasy.
Comment from: Othello
Date: April 22, 2012
Paul and Nastassja, thank you for the interesting insights. Like you Nastassja,
I wonder if there will be a time again when there will be such a free-flowing
symbiosis between the literary and visual arts. I am endlessly fascinated by
the creative life of a person like Delacroix, who broke away from traditional
mores of the time in his depiction of violent and erotic subjects, and yet with
such brilliance that he influenced generations to follow. And yes, Paul, with
Delacroix's frequent choice of subjects like Ophelia, Desdemona and
Sardanapalus, I do tend to think he was "one of us".
With the conversation ranging to Goethe, I enjoyed looking up some of
Delacroix's "Faust" illustrations -- another tale filled with edgy dark eroticism.
I love the wry touch of having the devil Mephistopheles and Faust himself
appear to be virtually twins as Faust pursues his erotic obsession,
Marguerite, and the lower image, depicting Faust with Marguerite in prison, is
pretty intense for its time.
On the subject of erotic suicide, though it doesn't really come into play in my
personal death fetish fantasies, I do see it as artistically powerful and at times
immensely beautiful. Nastassja, I've read the Mishima book that you cite, and I
agree, the suicide scenes are like a remarkable, violent dance of death. The
dignity of the characters brings a kind of heroic quality to their ends, along
with the clear eroticism of Mishima's writing.
I will definitely have to devote a column to Mishima as I continue to explore
the artistic legacy of death eros.
And Paul, thank you for the good words about working to increase the quality
of present-day dark erotica. It's very satisfying to work at raising the bar of
such works -- books, artworks, film -- to at least aspire to a level of
sophistication that makes for lasting quality. That kind of work will outlive
our time if we can achieve it, and leave a stimulating legacy for those with
death-erotic interests and passions who come after us.
Comment from: Chris B.
Date: May 5, 2012
Fantastic artwork, and information about it. Thanks so much Othello, you
have really turned this into an eclectic melange of information, art, and
friendship. We are so lucky to have you in our lives. Chris