This drawing of a woman seated at a café table is reminiscent of the low-life café scenes of the Impressionists, Degas and Manet. Beardsley was fascinated by the uproar caused by Degas's L'Absinthe (1875-6, Musée d'Orsay) when it was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in February 1893. However, The Fat Woman is far more witty and executed with astonishing panache and economy of line.
The setting is almost certainly the Café Royal in London, a favourite haunt of artists and writers. As in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882, Courtauld Institute, London), the interior is reflected in the mirror behind the woman, its relative detail contrasting with the abstracted forms of the rest of the picture. The woman herself is a perfect example of the 'demi-mondaines' who appear in Beardsley's art of this period, which featured actresses, dancers, singers, courtesans and women of the night. The drawing is said to be a caricature of Beatrice Whistler, the wife of the artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who had offended Beardsley by failing to take him seriously and subsequently snubbing him. It was destined for publication in the first volume of the avant-garde journal The Yellow Book (15 April 1894) but was refused by the publisher, John Lane, who feared recriminations from Whistler. In his characteristically melodramatic way Beardsley wrote to Lane, 'Yes, my dear Lane, I shall most assuredly commit suicide if the Fat Woman does not appear in No.1 of The Yellow Book…I shall hold demonstrations in Trafalgar Square' (quoted in Clark 1979, p.96). In the same letter Beardsley said, 'The picture shall be called A Study in Major Lines' (quoted in Wilson, p.239), a clear parody of the title which Whistler gave to his own paintings.
Despite its small scale, the picture is classically composed and yet boldly modern in conception.
The influence of Japanese prints is evident in the picture's economy of line, flattened forms and bold silhouettes, as well as the series of arabesques forming the woman's flamboyant hat. It is hardly a flattering image and the woman almost has an air of malevolence, emphasised by the simplified forms and the claw-like hands thrust into the long black gloves.
Beardsley gave the drawing, inscribed on the back 'à mon ami Will Rothenstein', to his close friend and fellow artist, William Rothenstein, who returned it, recommending that it be destroyed. It was subsequently reproduced in Today on 21 May 1894.
Kenneth Clark, The Best of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1979, pp.96-7, reproduced p.97.
Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, London 1967, revised edition, 1987, p.342, no.325, reproduced pl.322
Catherine Slessor, The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1989, p.54, reproduced p.54.
Simon Wilson, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, exhibition catalogue, Kawasaki City Museum, Kanagawa 1998, p.239, no.118, reproduced p.146.