Who was Édouard-Henri Avril?
Edouard-Henri Avril was a French painter and artist who, under the pseudonym Paul Avril, also illustrated erotic literature. His fame helped him collaborate with influential personalities, such as Henry Spencer Ashbee, Octave Uzanne, and Friedrich Karl Forberg. Before working as an illustrator, he served as a soldier and was awarded with the ‘Legion of Honour’ for his contribution in the ‘Franco-Prussian War.’ He made the nineteenth century erotica extremely explicit. During this time, erotica was a pleasure enjoyed only by the rich who could afford the various kinds of expensive erotic novels and other works. He knew exactly how to blur the lines between art and erotica. Not a lot is known about him and his background, particularly because of the salacious nature of the work he produced and that too under an assumed name. He travelled all the way to Paris where he honed his artistic capabilities by spending time at various Parisian salons. He also gained mastery by studying at the prestigious art school ‘Ecole des Beaux-Arts.’
Childhood & Early Life
Edouard-Henri Avril was born on May 21, 1849, in Algiers. His father was a colonel in the civil administration. Avril had fought in the ‘Franco-Prussian War’ before he began working as a full-time artist. He was wounded and awarded the ‘Legion of Honour’ on May 31, 1871 for the injuries he had suffered in the war. His wounds eventually led to his retirement and he gave up his military career on January 23, 1872.
Given the obscene nature of his art illustrations, he used the alias ‘Paul Avril’ to complement his works. However, his pseudonym created confusion between him and his brother who was also named Paul-Victor Avril, who also worked as an artist as well as an engraver.
From 1874 to 1878, he studied at the ‘Ecole des Beaux-Arts’ institute in Paris. In 1882, he worked for the illustrated news magazine ‘Le Monde illustre’.
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He adopted his other name, Paul Avril, after he was commissioned to illustrate Theophile Gautier’s novel ‘Fortunio.’ Very quickly, he made a reputation for himself which helped him receive several commissions to illustrate both big authors and the so-called ‘galante literature,’ a form of erotica known during that period.
His reputation as a commercial artist, however, was established before he started drawing the more underground erotic literature. Such books were only sold in small editions and on subscription basis which was organized by collectors. Because the erotica during that time were printed in limited quantity – some 100 copies or so –these were sold within very exclusive circles of collectors.
His major works included the illustrations he drew in 1906 for ‘De Figuris Veneris: A Manual of Classical Erotica.’ The book, translated in English as ‘On the figures of Venus’, was an anthology of Ancient Greek and roman erotic writings, all classified by subject.
Another of his important illustration was for John Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill,’ which was also known as ‘Memoirs’of a Woman of Pleasure.’ The novel was considered a controversial work for its time, and was the first of one to bring erotica to English literature.
The book's edition, which was illustrated by him, included Les charmes de Fanny exposes. These were known as one of his finer drawn pictures.
Among his other works were his pictures for the anonymous lesbian novel called ‘Gamiani,’ and some were for Hector France’s ‘Musk, Hashish and Blood.’
Henry Spencer Ashbee, a creative erotica collector, commissioned the artist to design a bookplate for him. He also worked with Octave Uzanne, who had started two new bibliographic societies. Octave had left the ‘Societe des Amis des Livres,’ as he found it too conservative, and concerned mostly with reissue of the old works. The ‘Societe des Bibliophiles Contemporaines’ (1889–1894) comprised of 160 people from various literary circles, including Avril.
Of his work, notable writer TM Bernard said: “Notice the rapture on the faces of the women, something not usually something seen today, where everything is hot and furious, and a woman’s pleasure is often depicted as secondary to the man’s (and the viewers’). What’s more, the images reveal a total lack of pretence or shame. Whatever is being shared and experienced together is mutual and pleasurable.”
Because of his graphic illustrations and the perceived obscenity in his art, it is difficult to assess what impact his work might have had on the culture of that period.
The list of his major works and editions include ‘L'Éventail’ (1882), ‘L'Ombrelle – Le Gant – Le Manchon’ (1883), ‘Fortunio’ (1883), ‘Adventures of the Chevalier de Faublas’ (1884), ‘Mon Oncle Barbassou’ (Scenes in a Harem) (1884), ‘Fanny Hill’ (fr. 1887, eng. 1906), ‘Oeuvres d’Horace’ (1887), ‘The Mirror of the World’ (1888), ‘Le Roi Caundale’ (1893), ‘Une nuit de Cléopâtre’ (1894), ‘The Life and Adventures of Father Silas’ (1896), ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ (1898), ‘Musk, Hashish and Blood’ (1899), ‘Les Sonnets Luxurieux de l’Aretin’ (1904), ‘Gamiani’ (1905), ‘De Figuris Veneris: A Manual of Classical Erotica’ (1906), ‘Salammbô’ (1906), ‘Histoire de Saturnin’ (1908), and ‘The Madam.’
Personal Life & Legacy
Avril breathed his last at Le Raincy, near Paris, in 1928. His legacy includes all his illustrations of erotic literature, which became a rage during his time. His artwork is now also available for online auctions.