Erotica in the Western World: A Brief History

Erotica accords a vivacious presence to the world of antiques and historic art, despite its often shadowy, closeted presentation in gallery and museum exhibitions and collections. One of the hottest growing genres for collectors, virtually any dealer or curator in the antiques industry can attest to how easy buying and selling erotic-themed pieces is — and how hard it is to keep these titillating items in continuous collections. “The easiest things to sell are good erotica and good political materials,” Brooklyn-based antiques and folk art dealer Steven S. Powers Observes. “They leave the door the quickest.” Depictions of sexuality have been created since the dawn of humankind and are recorded in every single civilization and culture worldwide. Erotic themes are found across the arts and humanities throughout the ages, from prehistoric cave paintings to sculpture, literature to theatrical drama, and in later eras captured in photography and film. In antiquity, erotic and sexualized themes in art were often religious and spiritual expressions honoring or conjuring fertility; these works were not stigmatized or set apart from other art for their content or theme — they were simply a part of everyday life.

Erotic mural excavated in Herculaneum, Pompeii.

Erotic mural excavated in Herculaneum, Pompeii.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were prolific creators of erotica, emblazoning their homes and public spaces with decor, frescoes, mosaics, ceramics and even ancient graffiti depicting scenes of lovers in embrace and often humorous illustrations of hyper-sexualized subjects. In the 1860s, large-scale excavations of Pompeii — a locale famous for its luxurious and libertine brothels in ancient times — revealed a massive cache of erotic Roman art, shocking Victorian scholars and archeologists into hiding these artifacts from the public eye. In medieval times, erotic scenes appeared in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Hours. These were only seen by the affluent who could afford these expensive hand-made books, but the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century would change everything. Artists from the Renaissance through the Modern Era were able to surreptitiously convey sexual themes and avoid having their work destroyed by censors by not depicting sex between two humans, but cloaking the narrative in mythology. Italian printmaker and painter Agostino Carracci’s late-16th-century series of erotic engravings Lascivie, or “The Lusts,” cleverly feature satyrs, nymphs and putti in the throes of carnal passion.

Lascivie, or “The Lusts,” 15th--century printed engraving by Agostino Carracci.

Lascivie, or “The Lusts,” 15th--century printed engraving by Agostino Carracci.

The modern concept of pornography, especially in a commercialized sense, simply did not exist culturally until the restrictive Victorian era. Frank depictions of sexuality, however artistic, were seen as vehicles of corruption for the “weaker” sensibilities of women, children and the working class. Yet, the sheer volume and diversity of erotica produced during the tightly-laced Victorian and Edwardian periods — especially those advertising brothels, red-light districts and sexualized entertainment, like newfound burlesque acts and French peep shows — in Europe and America is beyond telling.

Sex is an evolutionary urge central to the existence of life and the survival of the human species, lending directly to its frequent repetition in art, artifacts and erotic antiques. Academically speaking, what more could one expect? But erotica’s place in the heart of a collector holds far more psychological nuance than pure compulsion. What’s stigmatized as sinful and lascivious help provide historical context in documenting important changes in attitudes throughout history. The subtlety and sophistication of the narrative — the desire and journey to the act itself — is what drives the eternal fascination with the erotic. Plus, the forbidden fruit is almost always appealing in most cultural and spiritual narratives. Curators, collectors and historians simply want a bite of the fun and excitement these scintillating objects and works of art hold.

Still, this fascinating material has become something of a missing link for curators and collectors — enjoyed privately, but not publicly examined as a common presence in museums and gallery exhibitions. Surprisingly, eroticism was much more acceptable and publicly visible in the 1920s and 1930s than it is today. For modern viewers, erotic depictions in art and media of all kinds remind us that human beings have seen sex as funny, joyful, strange and titillating throughout history. Erotica provides a range of expressions about sexuality and the honesty of desire, sometimes seen through a voyeuristic lens. The inability to talk publicly about sex, sexuality and gender absolutely contributed to the creation of erotica as an art form. Folk artworks, in particular, are first and foremost personal expressions of sexuality unhindered by commercialism or the expectation of public critique, however small. As a result, they are mediations between the artist and the self about sexuality. Much of erotica brings together two unlikely motifs to disguise the explicit nature of some depictions, usually lending wit, ebullience and humor — or pure intrigue — to the psychology of the subject matter. These items have the capacity to charm even the most austere collectors.

Though most erotica antiques in collections and on the market today were originally created as provocative entertainment largely geared toward gentlemen, occasionally we find pieces intended for marginalized audiences. These unique pieces of erotic history were kept in the darkest shadows of their day due to taboos and prohibitive laws outright forbidding the sexuality or gender identity of the content and intended viewerships. Through these fascinating relics of a bygone underground, the humanity of marginalized communities is seen and felt, viscerally. Human sexuality is a minefield for political debate, legislation and commercial exploitation permeating the public discourse. We feel this every day in modern society, but the essential nature of the content and how works of historic erotic art and antiques were disseminated proves that controversy has always colored the social sphere of sexuality. What collectors, curators and scholars of erotica seek to recover is an understanding of the way that people have understood and perceived sexuality on their own terms throughout history.

Browse M.S. Rau's scintillating collection of erotica antiques and artworks.   References “Flagrant Delights,” The Magazine Antiques. Aug. 11, 2014. Accesses Dec. 5, 2019. “The History of Erotica,” The Carillon. March 8, 2012. Accessed December 5, 2019. “Lifting the Veil on the New York Public Library’s Erotica Collection.” The New York Times. Jan. 1, 2016. Accessed December 5, 2019.



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