Current discourse around "queerness" asks what the term means, and whether or not it's still a useful and effective category. While these debates can feel longstanding and exhaustive, "queerness" as an identity category is, in fact, fairly recent, a nineteenth century medical invention. As Michel Foucault points out in The History of Sexuality, sodomy was an act that anyone could conceivably commit, while "homosexual" denoted a specific type of person. While this was the first step to a more widely recognized and accessible queerness, it also blew the cover of gay couplings and small gay communities, which had run off privacy and public ignorance as to what they might be doing. In this excerpt from Phaidon's Art & Queer Culture, we look at five artists who navigated "queerness" before and as it congealed as an identity.
At the turn of the twentieth century, artists and photographers began to conceive of the homosexual as an identity (a kind of person) rather than as a discrete act, sin, or crime that anyone might potentially commit. The English word “homosexuality,” a medical invention of the late nineteenth century, remained restricted to clinical discourse until the mid-1920s. Popular language referred instead to “introverts” and “perverts,” as well as to a multiplicity of other roles––“mannish woman,” “fairy,” “uranian,” “dandy”––that do not align with the subsequent construction of a homosexual/heterosexual binary.
This excerpt explores how artists deployed visual codes to signal sexual difference. It considers the relationship of homosexuality to the other deviant identities in urban European and American contexts, and suggests the ways in which such identities were made visual. The works included here reflect the impact of the developing science of sexology on visual representation, as well as the intersection of early feminism and the camera’s increasing presence within the domestic sphere. Certain themes recur: crossdressing, desire across divisions of race and class, and the intimacies afforded by social settings such as the private home the artist’s studio, and the swimming hole.
Thomas Eakins’ career was beset by scandal and accusations about his moral standards, in part because of his practice of exposing his female students to nude male models. Swimming, based on a series of photographs that Eakins made of students in the flooded field of a copper mill, forced the painter’s resignation from the Pennsylvania Academy. Eakins generally favored the male nude over the female. “She is,” he famously wrote, referring to the naked woman, “the most beautiful thing there is––except a naked man.” This is not to say that Eakins was gay, in the contemporary sense of the word, but that interpreting his explorations of the naked body is a matter of controversy. Eakins’s paintings and photographs have been used to bolster claims for his importance as a realistic painter of heterosexual American masculinity and to argue for his significance as a pioneer in a male homoerotic tradition of visual art.
Julia Martin, Julie Bredt, and Self Dressed Up As Men, 4:40, Thurs., Oct. 15, 1891
Many amateur and professional photographs from the end of the nineteenth century depict middle-class women wearing men’s clothes, or conventionally dressed women flaunting the public signifiers of masculinity: alcohol, facial hair, a cigarette, a cigar or openly crossed legs. New York socialite Alice Austen’s image of herself and two close friends in male garb––as well as her depictions of young women masquerading as banjo players, gymnasts, and bicyclists––should be understood in the context of these performances of masculinity. When Austen staged this photograph, she had not yet met Gertrude Tate, with whom she would share a life for thirty years on Staten Island, New York. In 1950, Austen’s work was "discovered" when she was forced to move, without Tate, to the poor house, and from time to time, feminist art historians and lesbian artist have turned their attention to it. But even as her photographs embody an emergent queer visibility, they do so within Austen’s private sphere of female friendship and gender masquerade.
Portrait of Robert de Montesquiou
Giovanni Boldini’s portrait is only one instance of the extraordinary attention lavished upon Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1855-1921) by painters, photographers, and novelists in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. De Montesquiou was a dandy. He presented himself as an archetype of the aesthete and the man of breeding elegant in his dress and faultless in his deportment. His image shaped contemporary representations of the dandy––he was the man upon whom Karl Huysmans based the central character in his novel A Rebours (which translates to Against the Grain, or Against Nature, 1884). He is also said to have served Oscar Wilde as a model for the eponymous character in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Marcel Proust for Baron du Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27).
The popular press could not resist caricaturing de Montesquiou. Adorning a male figure with the inventory of de Montesquiou’s accessories––cane, gloves, cape, pocket handkerchief, cravat, waistcoat, form-fitting cutaway jacket and elegantly trimmed goatee and moustache––made that figure instantly legible as a dandy, a man who cruised other men as he strolled his metropolis. As Boldini’s painting suggests, de Montesquiou was not troubled by his own narcissism. He constantly had himself photographed––in one memorable image, as John the Baptist. Boldoni renders de Montesquiou in shades of grey and black. His subject twists his seated body to achieve a flattering profile and a slender waist. The picture hinges on two diagonals that intersect suggestively between de Montesquiou’s legs: the cane that he holds across his body in his right hand and the line of his gloved hand.
John Singer Sargent
Born to American expatriate parents living in Italy, Sargent studied painting in Florence and in Paris. After settling in London (with frequent trips to the Continent and the United States), he enjoyed great success as a portraitist of the upper classes. In private, Sargent also produced an extensive body of homoerotic drawings and watercolors, including this erotically charged painting of a lightly draped male model. Whatever Sargent’s own sexuality (he never married, and his family destroyed his personal papers upon his death), his sketches and watercolors all but caressed the male nude.
Portrait of Gertrude
Stein by Pablo Picasso
Writer, patron and impresario of modernism Gertrude Stein donated this painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She thus insured that an iconic image of a butch lesbian would flourish in the halls of high culture. Picasso renders Stein with the techniques of abstraction, influenced by African art, that he would articulate in his cubist period. And even though the portrait was painted two decades before Stein adopted her celebrated crew cut, he renders her as an “homesse”––a mannish woman, legs apart, hands on knees, leaning forward into pictorial space.