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Achille Devéria


By Christina Voss

Achille Devéria was born in Paris, 1800 and lived until 1857. His brother, Eugene Devéria – born five years later – went on to become a well-respected painter, but Achille Devéria favored lithography. And this meant that Devéria could specialize in a broad range of subjects.Bloodshed from the Revolution was still fresh when Achille Devéria was growing up and France was continually changing during his lifetime. The Church, which had previously been one of the biggest landowners in France, lost its authority to tax land use, and lost much of its property to the state. The government became a republic, then an empire in 1804, led by Napoleon until his abdication in 1814. There was an attempt to re-establish the monarchy, but in 1830, another revolution took place. This time a constitutional monarchy was put in place, with Louis-Philippe as the ‘citizen-king’ (1830-1848).

Historically, painting and sculpture were respected mediums; print was not. Prints were easily reproduced, inexpensive, accessible to the masses while painting and sculpture were unique, expensive to produce, and expensive to collect. But as a result, print as a medium offered a great deal of latitude. Prints were cheap enough to give artists room to experiment. Their ease of reproduction made them ideal for social critique, political propaganda, and documentation, say, of recent events. Prints were ideal for reproduction of other artworks, historical records, purely decorative illustration, illustration of texts, playful visual experiments. And prints were perfect for pornography. And of all the print mediums, lithography was most suited for reproduction – a single plate could sustain a much longer run than an engraving or an etching.

Devéria was wildly prolific, producing over 3000 works (an historian in 1854 places this figure well over 4000) over the course of his career, and he was best known for his portraits and scenes of everyday life. It looks as though Devéria targeted several markets, in such a way that explicitly sexual prints didn’t conflict with his scenes of contemporary society.  Charles Baudelaire praised his work for reflecting all “the morals and aesthetics of the age.” Edouard Manet derived his inspiration for Olympia from one of Devéria’s prints of a reclining nude. Historians went on to praise Devéria’s excellent skill, curators went on to exhibit his work, both took care to avoid his eroticism. Yet his eroticism was everywhere and offers a great deal of insight into the artist – he was unusually ballsy.

In 1830, Devéria contributed to a compendium of erotica called Imagerie Galante. In 1833, he illustrated Gamiani, Two Nights of Excess, an erotic tale of lesbianism by an anonymous author (believed to be by Alfred de Musset and George Sand). He managed to generate controversy with one odalisque, a painting of a loosely clothed woman reclined on a divan smoking a cigarette. He also illustrated a satanic/erotic piece of explicit literature called Diabolico Foutro-manie (1835), where devils penetrate young maidens with their tails. In 1838, he illustrated Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights), a collection of historical and erotic tales. He depicted orgies of every conceivable configuration: soldiers in a field, aristocrats in their homes, the middle class stealing off for an impromptu group tryst. Women cuckold their husbands in plain view. In one print, a man uses a candlestick on himself while he enters a woman from behind.

What’s interesting is that – while explicit imagery was illegal, called ‘offenses to good morals’ – it wasn’t aggressively policed. After combing the state archives, Abigail Solomon-Godeau observed what while Devéria’s erotic prints were most certainly illegal, the majority of prosecutions during this period were against prints that criticized the government. Pornographic imagery seems to thrive during periods of radical transition, some of it playing a dual role of erotic edification and scathing social or political commentary. While some of Devéria’s explicit imagery was political, he avoided critiquing the current government. But many believe that his explicit visual language paved the way for the Realists (Courbet, Manet), who would bring the candor of lithography to the respected medium of painting, and eventually shatter traditional rules of art.