Aubrey Beardsley

The Fat Woman


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Aubrey Beardsley 1872–1898
Ink on paper
Support: 178 × 162 mm
frame: 550 × 367 × 21 mm
Presented by Colonel James Lister Melvill at the request of his brother, Harry Edward Melvill 1931


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. Writing to Lane in his characteristically melodramatic way, Beardsley went so far as to say that he would take his own life ‘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.

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

This design is partly based on Degas’s Absinthe, a depiction of the ravages of alcohol which caused outrage when it was exhibited at the Grafton Galleries in 1893. However, where Degas’s woman is wasted and downcast, Beardsley’s is plump and assertive. It was thought at the time that she was a caricature of Whistler’s wife, Trixie, whom Beardsley considered to be as arrogant as her husband. The setting is probably the Café Royal in London which was then a favourite haunt of avant-garde artists and writers.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

N04609 THE FAT WOMAN 1894
Inscr. on reverse, ‘A mon ami Will Rothenstein Aubrey Beardsley fec. et don.’ and, over a caricature of a Queen Victoria penny stamp, ‘Received by Will Rothenstein’. Indian ink, 7×6 3/8 (17·75×16·25).
Presented by Colonel James Lister Melvill at the request of his brother Harry Edward Melvill 1931.
Coll: Sir William Rothenstein; ? returned to the artist; ...; Miss K. Savile Clarke (Mrs Cyril Martineau) by 1897; Harry Melvill.
Lit: Vallance in Fifty Drawings, 1897, p.208, repr. facing p. 135; E. R. and J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 1908, II, p. 140; Vallance in Ross, 1909, p.87, No.83; Robert Speaight, William Rothenstein: The Portrait of an Artist in his Time, 1962, p.120.
Repr: Later Work, 1901, pl.61; Early Work, 1920 ed., pl.138.

A caricature of Whistler's wife, first published in To-Day, 21 May 1894. Cf. ‘Waiting’, published in Bon Mots, 1893–4 (repr. Walker, 1923, No.27). Sir William Rothenstein, to whom the drawing was given, was a close friend of the artist and had the use of his studio 1893–4. According to Speaight he returned the drawing to Beardsley, from whom his son Sir John Rothenstein states that it was subsequently stolen.

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

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