Thomas Rowlandson
Out of step … The louche world of Thomas Rowlandson’s Exhibition Stare-Case gave way in short space to the strait-laced sensibilities of the Victorian age. Photograph: British Museum.

Everyone was enjoying sex all the time in the 18th century, to judge by its art. The century of the American and French revolutions was also a time of open-minded, unstuffy attitudes to love and desire. News that a 1766 edition of a popular sex manual called Aristotle’s Masterpiece is to be auctioned next week in Edinburgh is incitement enough for us to explore some Enlightenment erotica.

The most important thing about Aristotle’s Masterpiece, first published in the 1680s, was its advice that women needed to experience sexual pleasure as part of the reproductive process. This argument for equality in bed chimes with images of the boudoir as a female domain in Rococo art. William Hogarth’s satirical depiction of an aristocratic bedroom from his series of paintings Marriage à la Mode shows a countess at her toilette surrounded by flunkeys (including a eunuch singing opera) while her lover suggests they meet later at a masked ball. Her bed is a pink curtained place of pleasure.

What Hogarth laughs at, French Rococo artists indulge. Antoine Watteau’s intimate painting of a woman naked in her bedroom is based on a sketch of one of his friends. But the most daring nude in 18th-century art is surely François Boucher’s portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy lying on her stomach on a divan. Mademoiselle O’Murphy, daughter of an Irish emigre and mistress of Louis XV, shows the artist her buttocks in a self-consciously sexy pose.


Jonathan Jones
The Guardian