Possibly the most prolific illustrator of erotic literature ever to have graced the genre, Paul-Émile Bécat was born and grew up in Paris and studied at l’École de Beaux-Arts under Gabriel Ferrier and François Flameng, first exhibiting at the Salon de Paris in 1913. An accomplished painter, he exhibited regularly, specialising in portraiture, and was awarded first prize in the Prix de Rome in 1920.

Illustration from Batouala

As an active member of the Société Coloniale des Artistes Français (Colonial Society of French Artists) he made several trips to Africa during the 1920s and 30s, and won two major Africa-related prizes – for French West Africa and for French Equatorial Africa. This interest in Africa continued throughout his life, and in 1947 he illustrated the first African novel to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt, French Guyanese poet and novelist René Maran’s semi-autobiographical Batouala.

Marie Bécat, painted by Paul-Émile in 1930

In 1928 he married Marie Monnier, an accomplished artist and embroiderer who when they first met was the mistress of poet and author Léon-Paul Fargue. Marie was the sister of Adrienne Monnier, the first woman in Paris to open her own bookshop at La Maison des Amis des Livres, and who with her American lover Sylvia Beach ran the famous Paris-based Shakespeare and Company English-language bookshop, still in existence today. These literary and publishing connections kept the Bécats very much at the heart of the French artistic scene.

The 1930s were a boom time for French publishers of illustrated books, and Paul-Émile’s distinctive drypoints were exactly what their customers wanted; unlike some illustrators Bécat could also work quickly and reliably. By the end of the 1950s he had illustrated over ninety books, including all the standard erotic and mildly-erotic titles. Though most of his illustrations follow a similar style and theme, he was open to different treatments, as can be seen in his playing card designs for Le Florentin and Mémoires de Casanova; he also clearly liked sex, as Huit images testifies.

A complete and detailed list of all 93 titles illustrated by Paul-Émile Bécat can be found at The Erotica Bibliophile website

Example illustration