A Brief History of Erotic Art

Erotic art has been created by almost every civilization, be it ancient or modern. Erotic illustrations were displayed through paintings, sculptures, dramatic arts, photographs, writings, and music. They showed scenes of sex throughout the time. In earlier cultures, sexual activity was associated with supernatural forces and therefore they also have religious resemblance attached to it. The Asian countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Japan, and China represented erotic art with special spiritual meanings of the religions. The Greeks and Romans of ancient times created art which was erotic and most of it was rooted in their cultural beliefs and religious practices. As times passed and new technologies invented, printing, photography, computers and motion pictures have been adapted to portray the erotic depictions.

We cannot come to a common conclusion about the definition of erotic art. The term ‘erotic art’ is subjective and depends on the context and perception of how people view it. The idea of erotic and art differs from person to person. Some work that is created to illustrate sex education can be perceived as inappropriately erotic by others. Erotic art has an intention to instigate its viewers sexually and sometimes they end up performing sexual activity. Some may get confused between erotic art and pornography and think that they are the same thing. However, the fact is though pornography also intends to evoke sexual arousal like erotic art, it cannot be considered as fine art. Erotic art keeps the purpose of sexual arousal secondary. It is an art of beauty that can be appreciated by someone who is not interested in their erotic matter. 

Erotic literature prevailed in ancient times as well. It included both fictional and real stories. The stories are most are about sexual relationships. The stories are generally passionate and romantic in type. They were written to arouse the same sexual feelings among the readers. Erotic literature is available in the form of novels, poetry, sex manuals, and short stories. It depends on the readers, which form would suffice their requirements. All forms of literature, features sexual fantasies, orgies, and sadochism which are tough to be explained in explicit language. Apart from the writings, there are illustrations to depict erotic art. Many erotic poems were composed during the ancient Greek and Roman periods. During the time of the Renaissance, most of the poems were not written just for the sake of publication. They were circulated in manuscripts among a few of the readers.

More about the Early Erotic Depictions

  • Paleolithic and Mesolithic – The oldest examples of erotic art surviving till today are Paleolithic paintings done in the caves and carvings. Some generic images are that of animals and human genitalia. Some of the Paleolithic paintings consist of nude humans with sexual characters depicted exaggeratedly. The cave art of Creswell Cragds in England has symbols that can be projected as a version of female genitalia. It is speculated that these objects were mostly used in religious rituals or for sexual requirements.
  • Mesopotamia – Numerous artifacts are discovered from ancient Mesopotamia. Those artifacts project explicit heterosexual sexual activity. The Glyptic art which belongs to the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period often shows scenarios of frontal sex done using the missionary pose. Some artifacts represent a man penetrating the woman when she rests on top of an altar and some have shown a man entering a woman from behind when she bends over to drink her beer using a straw. Scholars have interpreted these poses as a part of ritual sex. Many sexual images are found in some of the temples of Inanna st Assur which has male and female sex organs created as models.
  • Egypt – Showcase of sexual intercourse was not an integral part of ancient Egyptian art. However, there were basic sketches found about heterosexual intercourse. These sketches were done on pottery and graffiti. One of the famous examples of the time is Turin Erotic Papyrus, an Egyptian papyrus scroll, which showed men and women together in their different sexual positions. The men in the painting are shown as scruffy, bald and short in height with their oversized genitalia. Whereas the women were depicted as sexually attractive. People say that the scroll was painted during the Ramesside period which was from 1292-1075 BC. The quality of the scroll is very high which portrays that it was produced for a rich audience.
  • Greek and Roman – The ancient Greek artists used to paint sexual activity scenarios on ceramics. They had also focused on same-sex relationships and portrayed homosexual sex acts. Greek art has been portraying sexual activity often but didn’t have a concept of pornography. In their depictions, there was nothing illegal or immoral. Those were simply the scenes from daily life, some of them had more sensuality that the others. The ideal Greek man was shown with a small penis. It was the Greeks who created the instance of lesbian eroticism.

Many sexually explicit paintings and sculptures were found from the ruined buildings of Rome. There were paintings of a brother that would advertise the existence of sex in society. There were testicles engraved on the sidewalks. They were done to help the visitors to find their way towards sexual service and entertainment. The Romans thought that the portrayal of sex should be done in good taste so that it can be a form of decoration. Indeed their works were so realistic and fine that they reflected sexual practices of their culture with minute detail.

  • Peruvian – The ancient people of Peru created sculptures of explicit sex scenarios. They used this style in their pottery. They mostly depicted the act of anal sex and there were rare illustrations of vaginal penetration. Their main focus was on heterosexual pairs with the genitalia carved very carefully. They also portrayed infant breastfeeding while the couple having sex. Their culture was much different from that of other cultures. Moche (people of Peru) believed that there is a world of the dead which was opposite from the world of the living. That is why, for funeral offerings, they created vessels with depictions of masturbation and anal sex. They used these forms because that wouldn’t result in offspring.
  • Asian – The tradition of erotic paintings in east dates back to a long time. Countries like India, Japan, China, and Persia produced many arts celebrating human love. The works showed the love of men and women as well as the same-gender love. Kama Sutra is a popular ancient sex manual. It was written by Vatsyayana in India.

In Japan, woodblock prints were used to paint erotic art. This style is called ‘shunga’. They also did their works on painted handscrolls which also became popular during those days. Erotic art in China was also very extensively found. They reached its zenith during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Eroticism played a significant role in the development of the novels in both Japan and China.

  • European – Erotic scenes were found in the manuscripts during the medieval period. The manuscripts were very expensive and could be seen only by them who could afford the hand-made books. The scholars think that the pictures drawn on those books satisfied the cravings for both erotic pictures and religion. Along with the erotic sense, the book also covered the religious aspects. Some books also showed the priests and officials engaged in sexual acts. That depicted the political origin of the medieval period. The erotic images were expensive as they were handmade and only the upper-class male could afford to see them.

Modes of Erotic Depictions which encouraged mass-circulation

  • Printing – From the middle of the fifteenth century, prints became very famous in Europe. The reason for being popular was the compact natures that were convenient for erotic depictions. Nudity was associated with earlier times in the history of printing. The subjects of the prints were also derived from mythological facts which had an erotic resemblance. During the 17th century, multiple samples if erotic and pornographic literature began to circulate among the people. Pornography was also being used as political commentary at the time of the French Revolution. The stories printed also had illustrations of misbehaved priests, monks, and nuns.
  • Photography – Fine photography was first presented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre. This process of photography was an advanced one and the quality of the photographs was stunning. The quality didn’t fade away with time. The artist had introduced new technology as a way to portray female nudity. Also, they tried to follow the traditional art form in photography. Initially, each of them had to be registered under the French Government and after getting the approval, they could be sold. At that time, there was no usage of negatives, hence, each image was original and had just one copy.

If you have a traditional art on you, read this Artists Network article to know how to sell them.

The history of erotic art says that the erotic creations were done by every civilization, ancient as well as modern. The motive was to arouse sexual emotions among the people and also to spread awareness.