Reader Question: ‘I’m wondering about lesbian art, i.e. art depicting lesbian lovers. What are some of the oldest examples of this? The reason I’m asking is because we know quite a lot about homosexuality between men in the old days, and I have even heard some people say that homosexuality between women is a “modern phenomenon”.’
This is an important topic for me. That’s because I, the art historian behind this blog, happen to be a queer woman. (Not exactly a big shocker to anyone who knows me.)
This means that I’m always on the lookout for representations of relationships and identities like my own in art, media and pop culture. But while art history is filled with opposite-sex love stories, what about lesbian and other queer female visibility in art? Is it even there at all?
The answer is: yes, of course it is. Although you may have heard people say that lesbianism is a “modern phenomenon”, this is definitely not the case.
However, it’s true that our current ideas of sexual orientation are a modern (and Western) phenomenon. So, before I go into lesbianism in art history, let me start with a very brief explanation of the history of queer female identity as a whole.
Before 18th – 19th century Europe, categories of “homosexual”, “heterosexual” and “bisexual” didn’t exist – at least not with those names. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people were very interested in “deviant” sexualities: the sexuality of children, criminals, and, of course, those who were interested in the same sex. (see Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, 1976, for more information.) There was an increasing desire to categorize and label these sexualities. The first known instance of the word “homosexual” being used was therefore not until 1868, in Germany. Bisexuality, meanwhile, wasn’t used to refer to “attraction to both men and women” until ca. 1892.
However, although the words “homosexual”/”heterosexual”/”bisexual” didn’t exist until this time, labels for different sexual orientations have existed, across cultures, for centuries. 19th century European social categories didn’t exactly appear from nowhere. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, in their book Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, argue against the idea that sexuality labels originated in the West. They list the myriad of terms that have existed throughout Indian history to designate people who have occasional or even lifelong preferences for the same sex. Even in the West, terms like “tribade” or “sapphist” (both referring to women) were in use long before the 18th century.
Women who have sex and/or romantic relationships with other women have always existed, just in different social contexts. What I’m looking for in this article, therefore, is simply representations of women who have had sexual and/or romantic relationships with other women.
I’ve divided these depictions into four separate themes: Lesbianism as Erotica, Lesbianism as Anthropological Study, Ambiguous Lesbianism, and Self-representation.
Disclaimer: I use the word “queer” rather than “lesbian” for the majority of this article. This is because “queer” functions as an umbrella term for any person in the LGBTQ+ community, and lets me include all female-presenting people who could be anything other than heterosexual. I use the word “lesbianism” to mean “sexual activity between women”, not to describe the identity of the people involved.
I’d also like to give a general Content Warning for acts of homophobia and, in one case, sexual assault that are discussed in the post.
Lesbianism as Erotica (NSFW)
This is by far the most common type of depiction of lesbianism in all of art history. BY FAR. And like many forms of lesbian erotica today, most art historical lesbian erotica was made by (and likely made for) men. This leads us to a huge problem when studying female homoeroticism: throughout most of history, and across many cultures, women have been second-class citizens. They have rarely been the artists or the primary consumers of art. This means that we get very little idea of what the experiences and feelings of women actually were. Most of what we have in terms of queer female representation are men’s ideas of what female sexuality looks like.
That doesn’t mean that these representations aren’t useful. They give us some good ideas of what female same-sex experiences were like and how they were viewed by society.
One of the earliest examples of lesbian erotica is an ancient Greek ceramic vessel from c. 515 – 495 B.C.E. It shows two naked women, one standing and one kneeling in front of the other and manually stimulating her genitals.
Much has of course been made of the acceptance of male homosexual behaviour in ancient Greece, but there’s strikingly little information about female same-sex relations. Rather than create divisions between people such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, the ancient Greeks instead divided them up into “the penetrator” (a category reserved for citizens, a.k.a. Greek adult men) and “the penetrated” (which included non-citizens such as slaves, young boys and, of course, women). Lesbianism obviously doesn’t fit into this paradigm.
Overall, the attitudes on women who had sex with women are not clear. Plato, in his Symposium, introduces women who have sex/relationships with other women as a separate category, so we know that it did occur. However, considering how few rights women had as a whole in ancient Greece it seems that lesbianism was generally frowned upon. While there are hundreds of vases representing male homoeroticism, only two – including the one above – have been found that represent female homoeroticism.
Sex Toys and Dildos
Japanese shunga (erotic art) is particularly famous for giving us representations of strap-ons and dildos. You may know Katsushika Hokusai by his woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1820s); however, he was also frequently made erotic shunga prints. One of these, from his 1814 shunga book series Kinoe no komatsu (Young pine saplings) shows a same-sex female couple engaging in intercourse using a double-ended harigata (dildo).
Thirteen years earlier, in 1801, Japanese print artist Chokyosai Eiri depicted a same-sex female couple using a strap-on. This type of strap-on dildo was intended to be used by women either together or alone (if the woman was alone, she would use it by tying it to her ankle). In Eiri’s work, one of the women is also holding a container with a cream inside – some sort of lubricant – and she’s saying (according to the words written on the work next to her), ‘Seeing as we’re going to do it like this, I’ll put lots of the cream on it. So really make yourself come. Without the cream this big one would not go in.’
In Ming dynasty China (1550 – 1650), erotic art was elegant and beautifully produced. Erotic images were painted on silk and gathered into handbooks. Many of them depicted lesbianism, drawing on the intimate relationships recorded among women in palace harems.
The below scene, painted on silk, comes from a 1640 album and depicts two women using an ivory double-ended dildo. Chinese erotic scenes were often set in gardens like this one, associating the intercourse with the spiritual connection between nature and the human body. (I unfortunately could not find any good reproduction of this one other than the blurry one you see below.)
Probably my favourite representation of a dildo comes from Mughal India. It can be found in a 17th century Persian translation of an Indian sex manual, the Ratirahasya or the Koka Shastra (translated into English as “Secrets of Love”). Unlike the Kamasutra, which was a more ancient Hindu text, the Ratirahasya was written for medieval Indian society. Like the Kamasutra, the handbook was fantastically sex positive when it came to same-sex representations.
The above image was an illustration of a scene in which the bow and arrow was metaphorically – not literally – supposed to act as an allegory for a female same-sex position using a dildo.
Another important category of erotic female same-sex scenes comes from depictions of mythology. If you’ve read my post about the art historical female nude, you’ll know that scenes from mythology were fruitful territory for artists wanting to portray naked women. This is also the case for artists wanting to portray erotic lesbianism. Sappho from ancient Greece is a particularly popular subject – see, for example, Édouard-Henri Avril’s erotic scene above.
Aubrey Beardsley, an English Art Nouveau illustrator and author, illustrated a privately printed edition of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata. One of the illustrations shows a group of naked women with one of them about to manually stimulate another. Lysistrata is a comedy where women decide to go on a sex strike until their husbands stop going to war; however, it doesn’t include any references to lesbianism at all. Beardsley’s illustration was purely erotic fantasy.
Beardsley was involved in the Decadent movement, a late 19th century European movement that was filled with erotic artworks and literature. Austrian artist Franz von Bayros was another Decadent artist who often depicted lesbianism, such as the below work The Serenade from 1907.
Erotica and Homophobia
This type of erotic art gets ugly when insinuating that the sexuality of the women involved is somehow wrong or perverse. See, for example, Auguste Rodin (the famous sculptor behind The Thinker) and his 1885 work Damned Women.
Rodin created a number of pieces on the theme of lesbianism during this time. While many of them were celebrated, this one was never exhibited during his lifetime due to its “blatant homoeroticism”. The title is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, a popular subject for Rodin and other 19th century artists. The sexual activities of women would often be used to inspire titillation and shock value in the audience, emphasising the dangerous nature of female sexuality.
Remember: during this time lesbianism was considered a mental disorder, and those who practiced it were deemed corrupt and depraved.
There are many, many more examples of lesbianism as erotica – from Edgar Degas to Jan Ciągliński to more Sappho to 18th century engravings to even more ancient Chinese art – but let’s move on, shall we?
Lesbianism as Anthropological Study
Not all works depicting same-sex female relationships were simple erotic fantasies. Some artworks were created by male artists who had some sort of access to the queer female community, and therefore greater insight into their relationships. I call this type of depiction an “anthropological study” because it was created by outsiders who were, in a sense, “looking in on” or studying a subculture that they weren’t a part of. I’m going to focus on 19th century Paris for this section, where I’ve found the vast majority of art historical evidence for this pattern.
The artwork above, Le Sommeil, obviously builds heavily on a tradition of lesbian erotica. However, the fact that Gustave Courbet painted it lent it a certain status. He was a Realist, and aimed to display the truth as objectively as possible. Like many French Realists, he strove to represent the “bottom rung” of society, painting working class people, dancers, bartenders, sex workers, peasants and – of course – queer women.
Le Sommeil was not allowed to be exhibited publicly until 1988. When it was exhibited by a picture dealer in 1872, it was reported to the police. This was probably because it was fine art rather than erotica, making no attempt to hide its eroticism in a mythological or non-Western world.
This painting was so influential that it inspired numerous other artists in 19th century Europe to draw inspiration from queer women and their relationships. In doing so, they were part of an established 19th century trend of depicting lesbians as new models of sexual freedom.
In his 1816 text Le Nouveau Monde Amororeux, Charles Fourier, for example, argued that lesbians “defend liberty more than anyone else” and therefore deserved a place in his work. Famous Bohemian writer George Sand wrote about same-sex female desire in her controversial 1833 book Léila. 19th century artist Rosa Bonheur lived openly with another woman. Charles Baudelaire wrote about lesbianism in his Les Fleurs Du Mal from 1857. Lesbianism – both the identity and the term itself – became part of the French Bohemian, artistic underground.
The most famous of these more realistic portrayals of lesbianism come from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter who is well known for his Moulin Rouge posters (you might also know him as a character in the movie Moulin Rouge!).
It was while painting sex workers and spending time in brothels that he witnessed lesbianism first hand. The women he painted were often involved in romantic and sexual relationships with each other. He would paint them in intimate moments that weren’t focused on sex, but on moments like cuddling, kissing, or talking. He once said of a scene of two women lying together on a couch, “This is superior to everything. Nothing can compare to something so simple.”
So far, we’ve looked strictly at explicit representations of female same-sex activity. However, there’s a small problem that any historian will run into when studying LGBTQ+ history that I need to address. That problem is the intentional erasure of same-sex love from history itself.
There’s been a lot of wildly varying attitudes towards same-sex activity throughout history and across cultures, from celebrating it to hiding it to straight out condemning it. Often, when the “hiding it” and “condemning it” mindsets came out in full force, homoeroticism would be minimized, changed or straight out erased from books, novels, art, songs and other forms of recorded history.
There are plenty of examples where we definitely know that this happened. For example, Rekhti poetry (a genre of Urdu poetry from the 18th and 19th centuries that often featured graphic accounts of lesbian sex) that included homoerotic elements was systematically eliminated from the Urdu canon by twentieth century critics. British homophobia was strongly influencing entire countries in Asia and Africa during this time and obscured many depictions of same-sex love that could be found in non-Western myths and texts. The Kamasutra, for example, was translated into English in 1883 and subsequently rewritten to exclude same-sex activity.
This means that a lot of representations of lesbianism in history are incredibly ambiguous. Representations abound where we simply don’t know if same-sex love or activity did occur or not, but it certainly seems like it did. This is further compounded by difficulties with translations, and changing constructions of sex and sexuality over time.
Take, for example, a 2nd century B.C.E. terracotta figurine from Tanagra in Boeotia, Greece. Several representations of intimate female couples survive from this time period that have been fiercely heterosexualised by later historians. While we don’t know with any certainty that these women were represented in a romantic or sexual way, we do know that many scholars have chosen to ignore any possibility of same-sex attraction. The titles given to these sculptures, such as Women Gossiping, usually completely erase any possibility of lesbianism.
In this category we can also find a lot of portraits of women who have been rumoured to have had same-sex relationships, who I’ll list below.
A small note: in general, it’s almost impossible to know what the actual sexual orientation or gender identity of historical people was, so I’ve tried as much as possible to avoid labelling any of them. It can be particularly difficult to differentiate between a possibly transgender identity and a simply androgynous or masculine gender expression – so, in some cases, both possibilities should be considered.
Queen Christina of Sweden (1626 – 1689)
One example that I have to include is Queen Christina of Sweden, because I’m Swedish too and obviously have to represent other Swedish queers. Queen Christina – or rather, Drottning Kristina – reigned from 1632 to 1654. She’s famous for her unconventional masculine dress and decision to never marry. She shared a “long and intimate companionship” with her friend Ebba Sparre – a companionship that has more recently been accepted as romantic and possibly sexual, with Kristina once introducing Sparre as her “bed-fellow” and writing her passionate letters declaring her love.
Some have interpreted Kristina as having been a transgender man or non-binary person, rather than a same-sex interested woman. She once stated that, at an early age, she “despised everything belonging to [her] sex, hardly excluding modesty and propriety. [She] could not stand long dresses and only wanted to wear short skirts.” When she rode out of Sweden following her abdication, she dressed as a man and presented as “Count Dohna” (a member of her court). This episode is recounted in the 1841 book Drottning Kristina, which states that she changed into a man’s outfit at the Danish border so as to pass unnoticed.
All of this has led to a weird obsession with her genitalia that, in 1965, led to a group of Swedish historians actually opening up her grave to examine her skeleton for signs of intersex traits. (The results were, obviously, inconclusive.)
Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) and Maria Teresa Luisa (1749 – 1792)
Marie Antoinette was rumoured to have been sexually and romantically involved with her close friend, Maria Teresa Luisa, princess of Lamballe. They were apparently depicted as lovers in pornographic pamphlets that were spread among the people in order to slander the queen. When madame de Lamballe was killed during the French Revolution for refusing to denounce the monarchy, her body was allegedly raped and mutilated and her head was paraded under Marie Antoinette’s window with the crowd urging the queen to kiss the lips of her dead lover.
Julie d’Aubigny (1670/3 – 1707) and Madame la Marquise de Florensac (1645 – 1716)
Julie d’Aubigny is one of the more famous queer historical women out there, mainly thanks to the fictionalisation of her life in Théophile Gautier’s 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin. She was a 17th century French opera singer and swordswoman.
Because of the novelisation, d’Aubigny’s life has become a mix of fact and fiction; however, it seems clear that she was involved with both men and women throughout her lifetime and dressed very androgynously. She allegedly fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac near the end of her life. The two seem to have lived together.
After the death of Madame la Marquise de Florensac in 1705, d’Aubigny was apparently heartbroken and died only two years later. Some accounts state that she joined a convent and died there, while others state that she reunited with her husband and died in their home. It’s, again, a situation where her story seems to change simply depending on which historian is telling it.
Sappho (c. 630 B.C.E. – c. 570 B.C.E.)
This is also a good section to address the issue of Sappho. Sappho is perhaps the single most famous historical queer woman. However, we have very few details about her life.
Sappho’s sexuality has been endlessly debated among modern scholars. The difficulties mainly come from the fact that barely any of her poetry survives other than in fragment form (only c.a. 650 lines in total survive), and most accounts of her life are second hand. Much of her poetry is interpreted as showing romantic and sexual love and yearning for other women; in classical Athenian comedy, however, she was depicted as a promiscuous heterosexual woman.
Sappho’s potential queerness has often been either erased or explained away. Early translators often minimized any homoeroticism in her poetry through their own interpretations. Countless historians have argued that she was just displaying strong feelings of friendship or affection rather than romantic or sexual love.
However, there are a number of paintings of her that depict a same-sex loving woman. Apart from the obviously erotic ones, there are also a few that simply hint at her queerness. One of the most famous of these is Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon in 1864. It shows Sappho embracing her fellow poet Erinna, the two doves above their heads symbolizing their love.
And, trickling down from the Ambiguous Lesbianism category, we finally come to the rarest type of depiction: the Self-Representation. This is when a woman who we know has had sex and/or romantic attachments to other women has represented herself, or other women. This is both the most important category and the most complex one. As we’ve seen, women were rarely given the chance to represent themselves, and historical women’s relationships with other women have often been shrouded in ambiguity.
There are few noteworthy examples, however. Unfortunately, all of these examples are from the late 19th or early 20th century. Most of them are white. This is not for lack of trying to find other examples, but simply because the art of women of colour and the art of pre-modern women has not been studied as much. That needs to change.
Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899) and Anna Klumpke (1856 – 1942)
Animal painter Rosa Bonheur is considered one of the most famous female artists of the 19th century. She is also somewhat of a lesbian icon, famous for dressing androgynously and being involved with other women. One of her partners, Anna Klumpke, painted probably the most famous portrait of her. This is a rare instance of a historical queer woman representing another queer woman, with whom she was involved.
Frances Benjamin Johnson (1864 – 1952)
Frances Benjamin Johnston was an outspoken feminist photographer in the US. She photographed several famous contemporary American figures, including Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington, and campaigned for women’s rights in the photography field. She worked with fellow photographer Mattie Edwards Hewitt, with their correspondence suggesting that there may have been a romantic aspect to their relationship. Self Portrait (As New Woman) was a studio portrait from 1896, playing on the “New Woman” figure that emerged as a feminist ideal in the late 19th century.
Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970)
Romaine Brooks is another artist who’s becoming, posthumously, increasingly well known. She was an American painter who specialized in portraiture, renowned for her masculine and androgynous sense of style. She was romantically involved for years with actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, and later with Natalie Clifford Barney. Brooks possibly identified as bisexual, and, interestingly, she married her gay friend John Ellingham Brooks in 1903, separating after only three months.
Mary Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis (1844 – 1907)
It’s interesting to look at queer female artists who represented the female body in their work. Mary Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis, for example, was an African-American/Native American Neoclassical sculptor. She was the first woman of African American and Native heritage to achieve fame as a sculptor in the international art world.
She was rumoured several times throughout her life to have sexual feelings for and relationships with other women. While she studied in Rome, she was part of a group of American expatriates and artists. The women in this group, including Lewis, were allegedly known for having affairs and relationships with one another. Lewis also picked up a distinctly androgynous style of dress during this time.
Although she never represented herself or other queer women, she often sculpted notable women from history. She depicted heroines from the Bible and, most famously, Cleopatra. Her depiction of Cleopatra, in Death of Cleopatra, was noteworthy for being more disheveled and inelegant than other contemporary portrayals.
Emma Stebbins (1815 – 1882) and Charlotte Cushman (1816 – 1876)
American 19th century sculptor Emma Stebbins’ most famous work, Angel of the Waters, on the Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park, is another representation of a female figure from a queer female artist. Stebbins was in multiple long-term lesbian relationships, most notably with actress Charlotte Cushner. She ended up in the same social circle as Edmonia Lewis. Stebbins also created a bust of Cushner, below.
Gerda Wegener (1886 – 1940) and Lili Elbe (1882 – 1931)
As we move further along into the 20th century, we get more and more unambiguous representation of queer women. We have another queer female couple in the form of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegender. Lili Elbe was a transgender (and possibly intersex) woman who you might currently know as the subject of the movie The Danish Girl. Although the movie largely presents Lili’s wife as a straight woman, Gerda was, in real life, openly queer.
Gerda painted countless portraits of women, most of them of her wife Lili. She also created one of the only pieces of same-sex female erotica I could find that was actually made by a woman, an illustration for the 1925 erotic book Les Délassements de l’Éros.
Jeanne Mammen (1890 – 1976)
Jeanne Mammen is another artist who depicted the lives of queer women in the 1920s and 1930s, specifically in Berlin. She drew covers for numerous lesbian publications and, at one point, illustrated a collection of lesbian poems by Pierre Louÿs from 1894, Songs of Bilitis. In one of her most famous works, Costume Ball, Berlin (c. 1930), she depicts a partying same-sex female couple. Unfortunately, Mammen was banned by the Nazis in the 1930s and much of her work was retroactively destroyed.
Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)
The final, and latest, work that I’m going to look at is The Earth Itself (1939) by Frida Kahlo. Although Kahlo is best known for her marriage to Diego Rivera, she was in fact bisexual or sexually fluid. The Earth Itself was made by Kahlo as a gift for her friend and rumoured lover, movie star Dolores del Rio. Like many other artworks that I’ve already discussed, it’s been consistently heterosexualised by later art historians. Some argue that it’s a depiction of close female friendship and affection, or that the two women simply represent different facets of Kahlo’s identity.
Throughout the history of art, we have an extraordinarily small number of representations of same-sex attracted women. We’ve had even fewer representations made by these women themselves. Queer women have rarely been able to have their own voice heard throughout history; instead, we’ve consistently seen their stories and depictions erased, minimized, reinterpreted or ignored.
To this end, I’d like to highlight the male poet Sayyid Insha Allah Khan, an Urdu poet who worked in Lucknow and Delhi in the late 18th and early 19th century. He wrote Rekhti poems, where male poets wrote first person narratives as women, often about same-sex experiences. It’s likely that these poets received details of lesbian exploits from courtesans who identified as “chapti”; that is, who preferred female sexual contact to that of men. Insha made it clear, in one of his poems, that since the voice of the woman who loves women is being quenched, he has to speak for her.
This seems to have been the case throughout much of history. In many ways, it continues today, with queer women still being underrepresented in art and media.
The history of lesbianism in art is fragmented, poorly recorded and often intentionally erased. Studying it is an extremely difficult, yet important, endeavor. We need to not only keep on studying the representations of queer women as a whole, but especially representations of pre-modern queer women and queer women of colour, who remain underrepresented in this field.
So, if you can contribute any of your own knowledge regarding historical depictions of same-sex female relationships – let me know! Because I’m definitely going to keep finding out more.