Édouard-Henri Avril: The Master of 19th Century Pornography

Helen Armitage

The near-forgotten Édouard-Henri Avril (1849 – 1928) was an Algerian-born French painter and illustrator of erotic novels whose contributions to 19th century erotica were as immense as they were explicit. Here we look at the impact of Avril’s work, his ability to blur lines between art and erotica and how his erotic illustrations can be particularly telling of attitudes towards sex during the 19th century.
Born in the Algerian capital of Algiers in 1849, Édouard-Henri Avril was an artist perhaps more familiarly known by his pseudonym Paul Avril, under which he produced his most prominent works as an illustrator of several works of erotic literature. Not a great deal of biographical information exists on Avril, perhaps due to the supposedly salacious nature of his work during the time it was produced, and the fact he worked largely under an alias. What is certain, however, is that he made his way to Paris, France where he nurtured his artistic talents at various salons and spent some time studying at the prestigious art school École des Beaux-Arts.

Edouard-Henri Avril, De Figuris Veneris cover illustration, 1906

Though a painter at heart who had been exhibiting his art in the salons of Paris from 1878, his big break arrived when Avril was commissioned to illustrate an edition of French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier’s 1838 novel Fortunio, which originally appeared as a serialised version in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro in 1837 and chronicled the escapades of the young French marquis and titular character upon his move to Paris. After illustrating Gautier’s novel, Avril’s reputation as a talented commercial illustrator of novels was established and before long the artist began to accept a number of commissions for works of literature of a more erotic nature – books that, at that time, were more ‘underground’, so to speak, than much erotica today and typically received a very small print run, sometimes limited to around only 100 copies, sold within circles of collectors of erotica.
In 1908 Avril was commissioned to illustrate a later edition of the British novelist John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was first published in England in 1748. More popularly known as Fanny Hill (the name of the novel’s female protagonist), due to its sexual content the book came to be one of the most controversial and banned books in the history of literature – a significant publication that author and historian Julie Peakman writing forHistory Today Magazine describes as ‘a revelation in that it incorporated pornographic scenes in a novelistic form, a feat never previously undertaken in English literature.’ Following the young Fanny Hill from her village home to London, the novel depicts her sexual undoing and the edition featuring Avril’s illustrations contains one of his better known images Les charmes de Fanny exposes.

Edouard-Henri Avril, Woman-on-top position, 1906

It was perhaps Avril’s graphic illustrations for an edition of the German scholar and philosopher Friedrich Karl Forberg’s De figuris Veneris two years earlier in 1906 when it was published in French that really established his reputation as an illustrator of erotic novels. The book, originally published by Forberg in 1824, was a collection of ancient Greek and Roman scripts on erotica, now more commonly known and published as the Manual of Classic Erotology in which the writer discusses erotica and sexuality in an objective manner, and Avril’s contributions to the 1906 French edition include several explicit, yet sensual images.
As so little conclusive biographical information exists on Avril it is hard to judge specifically the impact his own images had on society though the ‘underground’ nature of many of the works the artist contributed to. However, their limited print runs, sales within exclusive collectors’ circles and the contentious nature of publications like Fanny Hill, do in fact speak volumes about the way in which erotica was received and perceived during the 19th century. If we look at Avril’s erotic illustrations in the cultural and historical context of their production they are important and revealing artefacts of attitudes towards sex during that time.

Edouard-Henri Avril, Socrates and Alcibiades, 1906

In her academic essay A Secretly Sexualised Era: Pornography and Erotica in the 19th Century Anglo-American World, Samantha J. Rose points out the ability of erotica such as the illustrations that Avril produced for many publications to provide a significant understanding of historical sexuality – which in the case of 19th century sexuality may be particularly interesting given the modern-day predilection to view this era as more ‘respectable’: ‘Pornography is also a useful historiographical tool, capable of providing us with a unique insight into several aspects of Victorian sexuality and culture, encapsulating everything from popular sexual fetishes…to the hypocritical nature of this culture of respectability’, says Rose.

Edouard-Henri Avril, Woman-on-top position, 1906

Writing for the online magazine Fearless Press writer T. M. Bernard, who specialises in the topics of sex, love and relationships, while assessing the work of Avril notes the propensity of the artist to depict sensual and mutually enjoyable scenes of sex – something that today much sexual imagery lacks; ‘Notice the rapture on the faces of the women, something not usually seen today, where everything is hot and furious, and a woman’s pleasure is often depicted as secondary to the man’s (and the viewers’). What’s more, the images reveal a total lack of pretence or shame. Whatever is being shared and experienced together is mutual and pleasurable,’ says Bernard.

Edouard-Henri Avril, Les Sonnetts Luxurieux, 1892

As Bernard goes on to say, a further historically and culturally significant aspect of Avril’s works is that they raise important questions around the blurring of art and pornography – that is, while his illustrations are undoubtedly sexual, they are still beautiful, anatomically correct and representative of Avril’s talents as an artist however they were received at the time of their production; ‘Perhaps at the time they were distributed, in the late 1800s, the establishment was outraged. Today, Avril’s creations are a colourful expression of sexuality from a bygone era, as well as evidence that lines between art and pornography have been blurred before,’ asserts Bernard.
Édouard-Henri Avril can then be judged as an important contributor to 19th century erotica – an artist whose sexual, sensual and beautiful works are particularly telling of attitudes – both public and private – towards sex during this era and an artist who skilfully blurred the distinctions between art and pornography.

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