Rowan Pelling Selects 15 Arresting Erotic Artworks to Take Your Breath Away

Launch Slideshow

Set aside the winter chill with art that ravishes the eye! Sotheby’s third major auction of erotic artworks – Erotic: Passion & Desire – is once again a cornucopia of sensual treasure. There are images of high sexual voltage, such as Jef Lambeaux’s ecstatic sculpture Leda and the Swan, and gentler pieces evocative of human love at its most intimate; canvases that would lend romance to any bedroom wall. From the towering genius of Salvador Dali at his most suggestive to the taboo-busting photograph of Raquel Welch in a bikini “being crucified” (a photograph withheld from the public eye for 30 years), this is a sale that provokes and delights.

Watch the video below for Rowan's take on why erotic art is so compelling for collectors.


Rowan Pelling Selects 15 Arresting Erotic Artworks to Take Your Breath Away

  • Luis Ricardo Falero
    The Pole Star , 1885
    Estimate £26,000–35,000
    I’ve always had a tendresse for the handsome Spanish artist Luis Falero, Duke of Labranzano, whose brief life (he died in London aged 45) was one of experimentation, passion and adventure.

    He first enlisted in the Spanish Navy, before abandoning the services and walking all the way to Paris to study art and science, where his chemical experiments were so dangerous he was advised to stick to art. Falero then moved to London to indulge his passion for astronomy and, judging by the nubile witches and celestial beauties in his artworks, for young women.

    The Pole Star is a perfect example of Falero’s art at its most mystical and pertly erotic. Her glowing pink skin seems lit from within as she stands atop a plinth of chandeliered ice – outshining every other star in the firmament.
  • David Hockney
    An Erotic Etching , 1975
    Estimate £3,000–5,000
    I’m not sure if any living artist has a line as confident and distinctive as Hockney’s. This strikingly erotic etching of an aroused man giving another male oral pleasure is so finely composed in its vertical sweeps (the penis, torso, neck and tree) and then the sudden, captivating contrast of rounded buttocks that the subject matter becomes almost secondary to form.

    I love the tender way the dark-haired lover cradles his partner’s bottom, fingers splayed, and the fact you can see a corner of his eye and a hint of dark eyelash. It’s explicit, yet economical, as if the whole scene was rapidly composed from recent memory.
  • Sir Jacob Epstein
    Nude Study - Betty Peters , 1943-45
    Estimate £5,000–8,000
    There’s something so ecstatically alive about Epstein’s studies of curvaceous Betty Peters (who made her living renting rooms to black seamen in the East End of London in the 1930s) that I want to reach out and touch her flank, or perhaps run my fingers through the thick tangle of her hair.

    The careless abandon of her arms behind her head and the way the soles of her feet are flexed – let alone her close-eyed rapturous expression – suggest the throes of orgasm. This is the antithesis of the cool, unruffled marble perfection of most classical sculpture. Epstein evoked primeval forces that perturb and mock the viewer, who remains one stage removed from all that ecstasy.
  • Herb Ritts
    Alek Wek, Los Angeles, 1998
    Estimate £10,000–15,000
    There’s a science-fiction vibe to Herb Ritts’ iconic, slickly surreal photograph of the Sudan-born model Alex Wek. Ritts conducted the shoot in LA in the late 1990s, when Wek had just turned 20.

    She has lizard-like spikes running down her head, neck and back (created from vegetation, according to a podcast of Wek on the topic) and her body is greased, giving her the otherworldly feel of a creature who’s just stepped from a space-pod. Her stance is proud, powerful and self-confident and even her high heels feel weaponised. It’s an extremely sexy shot, but the message is: "look, don’t touch."
  • Nikolaus Gysis
    Arachne , 1884
    Estimate £30,000–50,000
    To gaze at Nicholas Gysis’s Arachne is to feel simultaneously bewitched and full of dread. You don’t need to know Ovid’s Metamorphoses to sense a dreadful fate is about to overcome this sombre young woman. She looks sideways to a dark future, her lips caught mid-tremble and her rib-cage bird-like, arms outstretched as if in a final supplication.

    Doomed Arachne is the artisan who had the audacity to challenge the goddess Athena to a weaving competition and then prove herself superior. Worse than that, her flawless stretch of cloth depicted the gods’ misdeeds. Athena was incensed and rained blows upon her rival until Arachne hanged herself in despair. At that point the goddess relented and, in typical Greek god fashion, she transformed Arachne into a spider to weave for all eternity.

    In Gysis’s oil painting of the same subject you see a spider’s web suspended between the clothed weaver’s hands with part of its thread running through her pursed lips. This sketch is more mysterious and renders Arachne vulnerable in her nakedness, meaning the whites of her eyes and dark areolas of her breasts become the central focus.
  • Paul Sieffert
    Nu allongé
    Estimate £12,000–15,000
    Few artists have devoted as much time and energy to capturing the perfection of the female posterior as Paul Sieffert. If you browse his work you’ll see the same study (but different model) time and time again: a young woman lies like Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus on her side, face turned away from the viewer, while the curves of her waist and softly-pink buttocks are the central focus of the portrait.

    He had a penchant for placing his models on a luxuriant fur rug, as in this picture, where they often appear lost in deep sleep. This is a perfect example of Sieffert’s gentle eroticism: the golden-toned palette gives it the intimacy of a room lit by firelight, or a rich sunset.
  • Jean Cocteau
    Le Pisseur , 1947
    Estimate £2,000–5,000
    Cocteau is a maestro of the swift, saucy sketch with its deftly-caught moment of casual masculinity. I love the fact the rather vulgar subject matter – a jaunty young male caught peeing in a public convenience – is elevated by the artist’s sublime line. And I can’t help laughing at the fact the subject’s naked, apart from his beret and rumpled trousers around his ankles. What on earth has happened to his shirt? Only Cocteau knows.
  • Salvador Dalí
    Nu Féminin Spectral , 1947
    Estimate £60,000–80,000
    This monumental, fearless female nude, surrounded by angry attacking Lilliputian figures, bears a strong resemblance to Dali’s muse, model and wife Gala. And certainly Gala held great sway over Dali’s life and art. She was the confident sexual person in the relationship, while he watched and adored her, even as she had other, permitted liaisons.

    This powerful gouache and pen sketch could spring straight from the psychoanalyst’s couch with its strong evocation of Gala’s all-conquering persona like a genie escaped from the lamp, towering above the conflicts and sexual anxiety that dogged the artist’s subconscious. I love the figure shooting an arrow that will clearly never pierce her epic swagger. I’d give my eye teeth to own this remarkable work that feels much more personal than many of Dali’s larger scale canvases.
  • Joseph Marie Thomas Lambeaux
    Bust of Leda and the Swan
    Estimate £20,000–30,000
    It’s hard to think of any sculptor who’s breathed more passion and unabashed sexuality into their work than the Belgian sculptor Lambeaux. Rodin looks like a sentimentalist by comparison. Lambeaux’s figures never stretch when they can writhe or tremble on the brink of orgasm.

    His Temple of Human Passions was described in 1890 by the journal L’Art Moderne in some consternation as “a pile of naked and contorted bodies, muscled wrestlers in delirium…” And his wider body of work was described as “indecent” and “shocking”. So it won’t surprise you to learn his Leda and the Swan is a study of pure erotic rapture: the bird’s head nestling at her cheek is deliberately shaped to evoke a phallus and the torso ends at her proud straining breasts. Even in the 21st century it makes you gasp at the artist’s audacity.
  • Nobuyoshi Araki
    Yakusa , 1994
    Estimate £10,000–15,000
    I’ve long been a fan of the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki who’s produced some of the most powerfully provocative erotic images of the past century. He’s perhaps best known for his photos of women participating in Shibari (Japanese rope bondage) and his fans include Bjork and Lady Gaga, who have also both posed for him.

    This image is typical of Araki in its bold mix of beauty, sensuality, pain and surrender. The bare concrete floor is the very opposite of the comfort we associate with lovemaking and acts as a stark backdrop to the model’s milky body and her gangster lover’s extraordinary tattoos. This is Beauty and the Beast where the brute is a work of art.
  • Bruce Weber
    Lisa Marie, Palm Beach, 1986
    Estimate £5,000–7,000
    I love the actress Lisa Marie Smith, as anyone must who remembers her as a sultry alien with a beehive hairdo in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks (she also stepped out with the director). There’s just something so perfectly American and summer-at-the-beach about Brice Weber’s portrait of her at Palm Beach. Lisa Marie’s long sea-water tangled tresses and the tiny beads of water on her naked body are tantalising, as is the play of light and shadow over her torso.
  • Alphonsine de Challié
    Beauty with Pink Veil
    Estimate £20,000–30,000
    The smooth expanse of skin at the nape of the neck and just between the shoulder blades is an under-explored area of eroticism, so often overlooked in the quest to capture the perfect derriére. I’m seduced by the way de Challié frames this mysterious young woman’s back within the confines of a gauzy pink veil.

    I want to stroke her shining chignon (elaborate up-dos are unfailingly erotic) which reveals the delicate back view of her delicate ears, as well as a few escaping wisps of hair. You can almost hear the soft chink of her bracelets as she raises her arms to fix some detail of her fringe.
  • Tom Wesselmann
    Sketch for Seascape Prick , circa 1975
    Estimate £10,000–15,000
    This work made me laugh out loud at its shameless, red-helmeted simplicity. Wesselman was one of America’s foremost pop artists and if the duty of such practitioners is to provoke and amuse the viewer in one great visual gag this sketch hits a bullseye. It seems to be a study for Wesselman’s Seascape Prick, where a balmy back-drop of blue sky and sandy beach was added. But I prefer the sheer cock-ness of this image.
  • Federico Zandomeneghi
    Nu Couché
    Estimate £15,000–20,000
    I’m drawn to the carefree, legs-crossed pose of this naked young woman. It’s so far removed from the studied arrangement of the classical nude, where the body is seen as provocative landscape. By contrast, this cheery young woman looks as if she’s planning a jolly outing. There’s no effort made to pose like a siren and tease the watching artist, even though he’s a handsome Italian Impressionist of some repute. Her carelessness has a quiet erotic charm all its own.
  • Terry O'Neill
    Raquel Welch on the Cross, Los Angeles , 1966
    Estimate £10,000–15,000
    13 years before the Pythons outraged devout Christians with Life of Brian, the photographer Terry O’Neill had put ravishing Raquel Welch on the Cross for some publicity shots. The image was deemed so scandalous it wasn’t put in the public domain until 30 years later, when it was published on the front cover of the Sunday Times magazine.

    O’Neill said “I wanted to symbolise the dilemma facing Welch as the female sex symbol of the decade – crucified for her sexuality by the movie industry and the wider public who did not take her seriously as an actress.” I’m sure this is true, but what I take from the image are my powerful early memories of Welch in her goat-skin bikini in the 1960s’ B-list movie One Million Years BC, which seemed to be on TV throughout my childhood.

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