Aubrey Beardsley

Caprice. Verso: Masked Woman with a White Mouse


Image released under

License this image

Aubrey Beardsley 1872–1898
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 635 mm
frame: 940 × 815 × 80 mm
Purchased 1923


This is the only known oil painting by Beardsley and, unusually, it comprises two pictures on the one canvas. The first painting to be completed appears to have been A Caprice, a fanciful yet sinister work, depicting a woman in a black dress with green trimmings and a black dwarf in a red costume. On the other side, painted between the stretchers, is an almost surreal image of a masked woman with a white mouse. Both works are unfinished, and should be regarded as experimental

A Caprice appears to derive from the drawing Comedy Ballet of Marionettes I, one of a series of three which appeared in the avant-garde journal, The Yellow Book, in July 1894. In both drawing and painting the woman is being invited by the sinister dwarf to pass through a doorway. The sexual connotations of this gesture are made more overt in the drawing, where the phallic form of the door is emphasised. Beardsley was constantly challenging the conventional view of male-female relations and in the second drawing in the series the woman approaches a door symbolising the female sexual organs.

The symbolism of Woman with a White Mouse also appears to be sexual, and Wilson refers to Freud's theory that in dreams such things as mice become a substitute for the penis. Nevertheless, although Reade, too, describes the symbolism in this picture as 'Freudian', he also points out that Freud's work was unknown in England in 1894.

Aware of the dramatic potential of black and shadowed areas, Beardsley contrasts areas of dark and light to great effect in both works. He also employs his favourite complementaries, red and green, to provide a stronger colour note in A Caprice. Stylistically he may have been influenced in these paintings by the early work of William Rothenstein (1872-1945), with whom he shared a studio, and whose pictures are inhabited by similarly bold and gloomy saturated forms. He may also have had in mind the work of the Venetian artist Pietro Longhi (1702-1783).

The title A Caprice was invented by the Beardsley scholar R.A. Walker who was the picture's first owner. The name invites associations with the work of the fin-de-siècle poet Théodore Wratislaw (1871-1933), who published a selection of poems entitled Caprices in 1893.

Further reading:
Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, London 1967, revised edition 1987, pp.341-2, nos.323 and 324, reproduced pls.329 and 330, in colour.
Catherine Slessor, The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1989, p.78, A Caprice reproduced p.78, in colour.
Simon Wilson, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, exhibition catalogue, Kawasaki City Museum, Kanagawa 1998, p.239, nos.114-5, reproduced pp.144-5, in colour.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Beardsley was one of the best known illustrators of the 1890s. This is his only known oil painting. Unusually, it is double-sided. Caprice was painted first. It likely shows a theatre performance. A young white woman is led through a doorway by a person of short stature in a fanciful 18th-century costume. Though unfinished, the figure appears to be a person of colour. Beardsley regularly depicted people with dwarfism. In his lifetime, they were the subjects of cultural stereotyping, and were predominantly seen as sources of entertainment.

Beardsley painted Masked Woman with a White Mouse after Caprice. The identity of the woman is unknown. It is possible that, as in Caprice, the subject is a fantasy figure. Beardsley seems to have preferred this side and hung it on the wall in the house he bought in Pimlico, London. The painter Walter Sickert gave Beardsley some guidance while he was experimenting with oil painting.

Gallery label, December 2020

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N03815 A CAPRICE c. 1894
Not inscribed.
Canvas, 30×25 (76·5×63·5); the verso was painted within the area enclosed by the stretcher, 25 1/4×20 1/4 (64×51).
Purchased from R.A. Walker (Clarke Fund) 1923.
Coll: Mrs Pugh 1895; sold to R. A. Walker 1920.
Exh: Winter Exhibition, Grafton Galleries, January 1920 (70); Ceramic Society, Modern Paintings, Stoke-on-Trent, December 1920 (64); Tate Gallery, 1923–4 (8).
Lit: Vallance in Ross, 1909, p.84, No.72 (verso only); Walker, 1923, No.1, recto repr. in colour; Macfall, 1928, p.70.
Repr: Uncollected Work, 1925, pls. 34 (recto, in colour) and 35 (verso).

The painting was left behind by Beardsley when he left 114 Cambridge Street, Pimlico, in the summer of 1895 and was found by Mrs Pugh when she took over the lease, together with a ‘great quantity’ of drawings which she destroyed (letter from R. A. Walker, 28 September 1959).

Both compositions are unfinished. The recto, first called ‘A Caprice’ by R. A. Walker, loc. cit., is a variant of the design in black and white reproduced in the second number of The Yellow Book, July 1894, as the first of ‘The Comedy-Ballet of Marionnettes, as performed by the troupe of the Theatre-Impossible, posed in three drawings’ (repr. Later Work, 1920 ed., pl.15); in this the head of the woman is in half-profile and she looks out at the spectator, whereas the painting shows her in full profile. No other oil paintings by Beardsley are known.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

You might like

In the shop