Meet Clara Tice, The Erotic Illustrator Who Scandalized 20th-Century New York

Warning: This article contains erotic illustrations that might not be appropriate for your workplace.

Clara Tice was an illustrator with an eye for the erotic.

Her drawings and etchings conjure explicit fantasies from the vantage point of a woman ― complete with nude bodies, lavish settings and playful intimacy. Her bold artworks, loaded with an appreciation for female sexuality and unapologetic visualizations of all kinds of copulation, might seem like the work of a contemporary artist with a sizable Instagram following. Tice, however, made her mark on the art world in the early 20th century. 

Born in 1888, Tice was encouraged by her parents to draw from a young age, a rarity for women at the time. As a young adult, the New York-based artist briefly attended Hunter College but dropped out to become the mentee of painter Robert Henri. Through independent work with Henri, she honed her visual style, which combined elements of art nouveau with a graphic minimalism way ahead of her time. 

Tice got her big break in 1915 when her friends organized an exhibition of her work in a popular bohemian restaurant in Greenwich Village, which was soon interrupted by a visit from the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution devoted to the upkeep of public morality. Luckily, an editor present at the show purchased Tice’s more explicit works, so none were confiscated during the Society’s raid.

The controversy actually ended up working in Tice’s favor. According to Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, when Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield caught wind of the raid, he decided to publish photos of Tice’s nudes alongside an announcement of a satirical mock trial. “She will be tried,” the announcement proclaimed, “and therefore acquitted of the charges of having committed unspeakable, black atrocities on white paper, abusing slender bodies of girls, cats, peacocks and butterflies.”

The publicity brought a surge of attention to Tice’s work. From then on, she was known as “The Queen of Greenwich Village” among her circle of New York creatives. Despite the moderate celebrity she experienced during her lifetime, though, Tice’s work fell into relative obscurity following her death in 1973. 

Thankfully, her work is now available for viewing on Honest Erotica, a new website compiling erotic illustrations past and present, from big names like Egon Schiele and Auguste Rodin to lesser-known gems like Tice. The site is run by two individuals who publicly identify as “John and Rosie,” who have both worked in the publishing industry for decades. 

In an interview with The Huffington Post, John explained that he has long had an interest in historical books and the illustrations housed within them. Erotic work, in particular, illuminates truths about gender, sexuality, power and relationships that give fascinating insight into the time and place in which they were created. 

“I think illustration and intimacy go very well together,” he added. While photography, at least traditionally, documents the world around it, illustration leaves space for the imagination and play. This, as John put it, allows “people to be really turned on by things they wouldn’t expect.”

Although Honest Erotica specifies many times on its site that it features erotica, as opposed to pornography, John noted that the distinction is not about judgment. “We’re not anti-porn in the slightest,” he said. “We’re just concentrating on illustration rather than photography, mostly because it’s an under-represented medium.”

The delightful site is best used for discovering the many women artists who translated their dirty desires onto the page centuries ago, yet for many unfortunate reasons remain lost in obscurity today. Stay tuned for more introductions to the naughty visionaries of yore, courtesy of Honest Erotica’s NSFW vintage vault. 

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