In his introductory essay surveying and assessing the output of artists of erotica during the nineteenth century, editor Gelles Neret asserts that the century itself resembles the well-known artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres was "a wealthy member of the middle classes associated with 'virtuous art' and Raphaelesque purity, the leading exponent of the classical school," and yet an artist who so often and with such evident enthusiasm and commitment often devoted himself (on canvas and in sketchbooks), despite the taboos of his world, to the depiction of the unapologetic uninhibited erotic life of his subjects. Neret goes on to describe the European century as one of comparative repression - which artists craftily got around in the production and then the distribution of their works. To reduce the risk of imprisonment, some claimed anonymity.
This is a varied and somewhat difficult collection. Neret has assembled examples that are sometimes jarring in their contrasts. There is for example the lushly golden torso, in a tangle of sheets, of painter Gustave Courbet's sleeping female model ("The Origin of the World," 1866) and Degas' nudes (not, I would argue, "erotica" in intention or result). Series of engravings, illustrations for a variety of fancifully obscene books, were in high demand in the first half of the nineteenth century, and they are included. They are nearly cartoonish, and the colors are often garish. There are dream sequences, parlor high jinks, threesomes, foursomes, voyeurs, business being conducted, feathers, orgies, settings indoors (with great attention paid to interiors: carpets, wallpapers, and furniture depicted carefully) and out - whether in nature on the Grand Canal. The men and women in these are in various stages of undress. (Later on in much mainstream pornography, the men would often remain clothed.) This is the stuff of middle-class fantasy - and one suspects it sold well.
The devil would appear to have figured heavily in the pornographic lithographs of Achille Deveria and Eugene Le Poitevin. As sexual antagonist without parallel the devil conducts his business, enlists his fellows, thinks up and accomplishes hideous erotic "punishments," lurks in the rooms of the unsuspecting, and causes mayhem and (if the artist is to be believed) not altogether unwelcome mischief. One assumes that nineteenth century sensibilities must have in some way welcomed his leering presence and his tacit approval -in order to feel free to enjoy the goings-on.
Victorian mores get sent up in a variety of satirical drawings. The prodigious output of painter and illustrator Felicien Rops, working in Namur, is included. He's a fabulous artist and a stalwart misogynist capable of a wide range of styles and moods - so long as they depict female suffering in some fashion. There is death and disfigurement in some of his works, cruciform imagery, and a wide variety of emotionally freighted visual signals. The drawings are sometimes troubling and disturbing.
Finally, Neret includes the sinister illustrations for "Lysistrata" done at century's end by the misanthropic and spectacularly misogynistic Aubrey Beardsley.
The standout feature of this collection is that it likely will not provoke desire in all but a few, or particularly promote the enjoyment of any sort of sexual expression. Because of that, this collection is not altogether successful as "erotica."