This is Beardsley's design for the front cover of the first edition of The Yellow Book, a progressive journal of the arts, first published in 1894. The idea for a more enlightened publication, open to avant-garde ideas, was first formulated by Beardsley and his friend Henry Harland (1861-1905), an American writer who came to London in 1889. Beardsley and the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) then took the idea to John Lane, who agreed to act as publisher. Henry Harland was appointed literary editor and Beardsley art editor.
From the outset Beardsley aimed to be subversive and his artistic contributions not only gave the journal its distinctive character, but established its decadent reputation. The design for the first cover shows a pair of masked carnival-goers, and the sense of gaiety may owe something iconographically to the posters of the French artist Jules Chéret (1836-1932). However, in spite of the woman's laughter, the couple appears distinctly sinister. Suggestions of lewd behaviour are implicit in the man's furtive expression and sickly smile, and in the woman's air of sensual depravity. Together they call to mind the bacchanalian revelry of Venetian carnivals.
All the cover designs were printed in black on yellow cloth boards, in imitation of French novels. Beardsley's first design introduced a new illustrative style, distinguished by its flattening of perspective, stylisation of forms and bold application of dots. He specialised throughout this period in the interplay of areas of pure white with large masses of black. Here, for example, he creates the woman's enormous hat from a narrow line of white, where the paper remains uncoloured, within a uniform expanse of black.
When The Yellow Book was first published, in April 1894, the Times referred to the 'repulsiveness and insolence' of the first cover and went on to describe it as 'a combination of English rowdyism and French lubricity' (quoted in Slessor, p.53). Oscar Wilde, excluded from contributing to the first edition, commented on its depiction of 'a terrible naked harlot smiling through a mask, and with Elkin Matthews written on one breast and John Lane on the other' (letter from Max Beerbohm to Mr Holbrook, quoted in Lord David Cecil, Max, London 1964, p.321). Indeed, when the volume was published with its distinctive yellow cover, the names of the two publishers were placed exactly where the woman's breasts would have been if the picture had been continued to the bottom of the page.
Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, revised edition, London 1987, p.344, no.343, reproduced pl.344.
Catherine Slessor, The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1989, pp.50-5, reproduced p.53.
Simon Wilson, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, exhibition catalogue, Kawasaki City Museum, Kanagawa 1998, p.239, no.117, reproduced p.143.