Last week, Manchester Art Gallery removed JW Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs from its walls, a decision apparently inspired by the #MeToo movement – the picture shows a group young nude girls emerging from a lake to lure in the mythological hero. Though the removal of the painting with its erotic imagery received some support it also garnered criticism from many sides and was put back in place after only seven days.
The news followed the postponement of a Chuck Close exhibition in a US museum after allegations of sexual harassment involving potential models arose. The decision has raised in turn questions over whether older artists with similar records – many of whom also produced explicit works – should be qualified or removed.
But will attempts at public censorship make erotic art less saleable – or fuel the fires?
The Sotheby’s sale on February 15 is made up of works by some leading artists produced throughout history.
Sotheby’s auction Erotic: Passion & Desire has a pre-sale low estimate of £3.8m. It is the second erotic sale it has staged and the 90 lots in the sale on February cover nearly 1000 years of paintings, sculptures, drawings, posters and Asian art.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art specialist Tania Remoundos says: “This auction provides an extraordinary insight into how some of the greatest names in art history engaged with the subject of erotic art.”
Below, we take a look at nine lots that show how artist have shown erotic scenes for hundreds of years.
1 Roman brothel scene, 1st century AD
Among the earliest works is this Roman terracotta plaque, c.1st century AD, which sports a brothel scene. It is moulded in relief with a narrative apparently unfolding from right to left. Each stage is divided by architectural elements with charged encounters taking place between men and women. It is estimated at £20,000-30,000.
2 Portrait of Viscountess Cullen as Venus, 17th century
This portrait of Elizabeth Trentham, Viscountess Cullen as Venus, is estimated at £80,000-120,000. Attributed to Sir Peter Lely and his studio, the oil on canvas presents both an allegorical representation of Venus as well as a portrait. Viscountess Cullen was famed for her charm, extravagance and immorality at the Restoration court of King Charles II.
3 Jacopo Amigoni, Venus and Adonis, 18th century
Italian artist Jacopo Amigoni’s mythological painting of Venus and Adonis shows the goddess of love bmbracing her lover, emploring him not to leave on a hunting trip where he will die. It was originally part of a pendant pair created during the painters journey to England and it partner is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The picture is estimated at £300,000-500,000.
4 French, Bust of Antinous, 18th century
Estimated at £100,000-150,000 this 18th century sculpture is after an antique bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s lover. It combines the biographical portrait with an idealised classical representation of male beauty.
5 Indian illustrations, 18th century
As well as the live sale there is an online sale running from February 2-16. It includes this pair of illustrations depicting couples in ‘intimate embrace’. These were created in Delhi in the second half of the 18th century in gouache heightened with gold on paper and are estimated at £6000-8000.
6 Francesco Barzaghi, Phryné, 1868
Phryné was a courtesan from 4th century Greece who was accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries before the Athenian judges. At the moment of sentencing her advocate, Hyperides, swept off Phryné’s clothes. Her body was so divine-looking, the story goes, that the judges were unable to condemn her to death. The 19th century interpretation of the moment is estimated at £400,000-600,000.
7 Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Sluggard, 1886
With an estimate of £18,000-25,000, this British 19th century sculpture was inspired when Frederic, Lord Leighton’s model Giuseppe Valone stretched after a long sitting. The state was conceived as a pendant to the artist’s earlier work An athlete struggling with a python.
8 Francis Picabia, Les baigneuses, femmes nues bord de mer, 1941
In the 1940s Picabia, fascinated by the subversive power of eroticism, began to paint nudes in the style of French glamour magazines. He used mass-produced erotica, postcards and photo-novels to inform his work but painted scenes in oil with an exaggerated manner, exploring the dichotomy between low and high art. This oil on card is estimated at £400,000-600,000.
9 Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus, 1971
A characteristically erotic example of Picasso’s later drawings, this shows a woman in a satyr’s embrace. Done in brush and ink, wash and pencil on paper, it is estimated at £250,000-350,000.