Some works were never intended to be shown publicly, but remained in a gentleman's home, perhaps hidden behind a curtain so as not to inadvertently offend maids and female guests.
Peter Paul Rubens painted many nudes, but one of his flat-out sexiest works is Het Pelsken (The Little Fur), a portrait of his second wife, Helena Fourment, who was nearly 40 years his junior.
In the portrait, Fourment is naked but for a fur she is covering herself with - with little success. She is chubby by 20th-century standards of ideal beauty, but her flesh is rendered in great detail, her arms support her breasts, which intriguingly point in different directions, and the fur is held slightly awkwardly, as if it were moments away from slipping aside and inadvertently revealing all of her charms.
Rubens considered this a private and personal work; it remained in Rubens' personal collection until he died, after which it was explicitly left to Helena Fourment in his will.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard is the archetypical painter of the Rococo period; many of his paintings portray the flirtations and romantic entanglements of the French aristocracy.
His most famous work is The Swing, (the full title translates as Happy Accidents of the Swing), a painting which on the surface has a very gay and innocent air. In fact, it illustrates a sexual fantasy of the Baron de Saint-Julien, who commissioned the work and gave Fragonard very specific instructions about what to paint.
What he wanted was his lover to be painted in flowing skirts, being pushed on a swing by her husband, a Bishop. In the picture, the Baron would be behind a bush, hidden from the Bishop and in a position to see his lover as her skirt billowed and exposed her legs (and more, as ladies of this era did not sport certain undergarments commonly worn today).
On a more bizarre note, Alexandra Connor reports that William Hogarth was commissioned to paint the English scoundrel Francis Dashwood, founder of the infamous Hellfire Club. Dashwood was painted in monastic garb, worshiping a naked woman and using an erotic novel as his Bible. Hogarth himself is sometimes himself associated with the Hellfire Club, as are Lawrence Sterne, Horace Walpole and the American Ben Franklin.
Perhaps the most celebrated collector of erotic art (before the days of Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione, in any case) was Khalil Bey, a 19th-century Turkish diplomat who proved that the taste for exotic Orientalist art wasn't limited to white Europeans.
Bey is known to have owned or commissioned such works as the famous Turkish Bath (1862) by J.A.D. Ingres, depicting a room full of exotic naked women (in fact, most of the women are from a single model used over and over), and Les Dormeuses (The Sleeping Women) by Gustave Courbet, in which the artist abandons the safety of the mythological pretense and paints a very blunt picture of two contemporary women sleeping together.
But the most outrageous painting in his collection, and one of the most notoriously graphic portraits of all time, is Courbet's The Origin of the World, a full-frontal legs-spread record of a woman's torso from her breasts to her thighs. Courbet, who had a brilliantly and bluntly Realist style, was possibly the only artist alive who would, or could, have painted this unblinking portrait.
After Bey's death, The Origin of the World was lost for many years and has only been on public display, at the Musée d'Orsay, since 1996.
[Because many people would be offended by this work, I won't link to it here. If you're dying to see it, though, Courbet's painting can be found at Mark Harden's Artchive.]
This article is copyright 2000 by John Malyon. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
John Malyon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org