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Lesbianism and Queer Women in Art History: Where Are They?

Two naked women are on a bare ground next to a big jungle. One of them is lying with her head in the other's lap. The ground is cracking next to them with roots showing. A small monkey is visible in the jungle, watching the pair.

Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself) (1939), Frida Kahlo

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.

Two naked women are depicted on an ancient Greek style vase. One of them is standing up and holding some sort of vase or drinking vessel in one hand. The other is kneeling in front of her and manually stimulating her genitals.

Decoration on a ceramic vessel (c. 515 – 495 B.C.E.), Apollodoros. Image from Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, pp. 18

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 woodblock print depicting two women lying down on a tangle of fabric. Their clothes are falling off them and their arms are completely wrapped around them. A double-ended dildo is clearly visible, entering both of their vaginas. Their pubic hair is also visible. They both have hair ornaments. Japanese text is visible above their heads.

Image from Kinoe no komatsu (Young Pine Saplings) (1814) , Katsushika Hokusai

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).

Japanese woodblock print depicting two women lying on a tangle of fabric. One of them is wearing a dildo tied around her hips with a red string. She's also holding a sea shell containing some kind of lubricant. The other one is grasping the dildo and getting ready to guide it into her clearly visible genitalia. She's holding a piece of cloth in the other hand. Both women are wearing elaborate head ornaments. Japanese text is visible above their heads.

Image from Fumi no Kiyogaki (Models of Calligraphy) (1801), Chokyosai Eiri (Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images)

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.)

A blurry black and white photo of a Chinese silk painting. Two naked women are kneeling on a blanket and pillow in the middle of a garden. There's a cluster of trees and rocks to the left and both of them are turning their heads towards it, with their bodies facing to the right. One woman is on all fours while the other is penetrating her from behind with a dildo.

Two women making love (c. 1640), unknown artist. Image from Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts, pp. 137

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.

Islamic miniature. Two women are sitting down and facing each other on a blanket surrounded by pillows. Both of them are wearing elaborate jewellery. Both of them are clothed. Their breasts can be seen through their clothing, and the one on the right has rolled up her clothes to expose her genitalia. The woman on the right is holding her legs open. The woman on the left is holding a bow and arrow. The arrow has a dildo on the end of it. The woman on the left is getting ready to shoot the arrow into the other woman's vagina.

Lesbian allegory (17th century), unknown Persian miniaturist. Image from Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in Visual Arts, pp. 126

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.

Using Mythology
Realistic European style painting. A naked woman in the foreground is lying on some rocks with a euphoric expression on her face. In one hand she holds an ancient Greek style lyre. Between her legs kneels a second naked woman, giving her oral sex. In the background, we can see a body of water and then a hill with an ancient Greek temple on it. In the water, a mermaid is giving another mermaid oral sex. Behind them, two mermaids are making out.

Sappho (late 19th century/early 20th century), Édouard-Henri Avril

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.

 

A black and white, graphic, stylised illustration. Three naked women are standing in a row to the left. They are listening to Lysistrata, who is standing to the right. Lysistrata is clearly saying something and is fully clothed in an elaborate, frilly gown. The naked woman furthest to the right is reaching over towards the middle woman's genitals, with her fingers crooked suggesting that she will manually stimulate the genitals.

Lysistrata haranguing the Athenian women (1896), Aubrey Beardsley. Image from the University of Adelaide

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.

A detailed black and white illustration. There is a fountain in the center of the image, surrounded by grass. Behind the fountain are some birch trees, and in the background to the left there is a European manor house. On the left side of the fountain, a woman dressed in black sits playing on a guitar and singing. In front of the fountain, dominating the image, are two naked women. On of them is lying down and the other is giving her oral sex.

The Serenade (But Later We Will Play Something More Innocent) from La Grenouillere (1907), Franz von Bayros

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.

A small bronze statuette with realistic human figures. It shows to women entwined in an embrace. One of them is lying down and the other is on top of her with her butt in the air. They're lying on a rock, which has the name Rodin engraved on the side.

Damned Women (Femmes damnées) (c. 1885), Auguste Rodin

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.

Realistic painting. Two naked woman lie sleeping in a bed. They are intertwined with each other. One of them has her hair on the other's shoulder, and one has her leg over the other's hip. The implication is that they're resting after having sex.

Le Sommeil (1866), Gustave Courbet

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!).

Realistic portrayal with stylised colours and brushstrokes. A close-up on two women lying in bed, kissing. We can only see their heads, shoulders and arms.

In Bed: The Kiss (1892), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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.”

Realistic portrayal with stylised colours and brushstrokes. Two women are lying in bed. The blankets are drawn up to their necks so we can only see their heads. They're gazing and smiling at each other.

The Bed (Le lit) (1893), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Ambiguous Lesbianism

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.

Ancient greek statue. Two women, wearing draped dresses, are sitting next to each other. They're leaning in so that their faces are very close.

Two women in intimate conversation (2nd century B.C.E.), unknown artist. Photo © Pilar Torres.

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)
Portrait of a woman staring at the viewer with a small smile on her face. It is stylised to emphasise her eyes, making them appear slightly big. She has long curly brown hair, and is wearing an androgynous black outfit.

Queen Christina of Sweden (c. 1652 – 1671), Sébastien Bourdon

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)
18th century French style portrait of a woman looking at the viewer with a slight smile on her face. She is wearing a large white curly wig and a hat with feathers. Her dress is light blue with lots of laces, frills and a big skirt. She's holding a rose in her hands, and is standing in front of a garden landscape.

Marie Antoinette with the Rose (1783), Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

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.

Realistic 18th century French style portrait. A woman is sitting by a desk and is looking at the viewer with a slightly stern look on her face. She is wearing a large white curly wig and a billowing white dress with a blue sash. She's holding a quill as if she's about to write something, and her desk is strewn with writing materials. The room she's sitting in is very elegant and hints at her high class.

Princess of Lamballe (1788), Anton Hickel

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.

To the left is a black and white stylised 19th century illustration of a woman standing in front of some trees. She's wearing a 17th century swordsman outfit, with a big feathered hat and frilly male clothes. By her side is a long sword. She's smiling slightly. To the right is a different illustration, this time from the 17th century, of a woman in fron of a black background with a long layered dress and a big head ornament. Underneath, the words Madame la Marquise de Florensac are written in cursive.

Left: The fictional Mademoiselle de Maupin, illustration of Theophile Gautier’s Romance Mademoiselle de Maupin (1898), Aubrey Beardsley. Right: Marie Louise Thérèse de Senneterre de Châteauneuf, épouse de Louis de Crussol d’Uzès, marquis de Florensac (1694), R. Bonnart

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.

Two women with billowing floaty dresses are sitting on a marble garden bench. Sappho, on the right, is leaning towards the woman on the left and putting her hand up to her face. The other women, Erinna, is turning her face slightly away. They have pained expressions. Two doves sit immediately above their heads in the garden.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864), Simeon Solomon

Self-Representation

 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)
A very realistic portrait of an older woman with short grey hair. She's wearing an androgynous purple outfit. She's sitting in front of a painting of horses that she's in the middle of working on. Her brushes and paints sit in front of the painting. She's holding a pen and paper.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898), Anna Klumpke

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)
A black and white photograph of a woman sitting down on a box in front of a fire place. She's sitting so that the viewer sees her body in profile. She's holding a beer stein in one hand and holding a cigarette up to her face with the other. She's dressed in a long layered skirt, long-sleeved striped blouse, stockings, buckled shoes and a masculine cap. Her hair is short.

Self Portrait (As “New Woman”) (1896), Frances Benjamin Johnston

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)
Stylised painted portrait. Cold palette in blacks and greys. A woman can be seen against a grey background, dressed in a black suit and top hat. Her eyes are partly obscured by the hat brim and she has a slight smile on her pale face.

Self Portrait (1923), Romaine Brooks

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)
Sepia toned photograph of a woman sitting on a chair. She's staring off to the side with a pensive expression. She's wearing a long dress, hat and a quilt or covering of some kind.

Edmonia Lewis (c. 1870), albumen print

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.

Large white marble statue. It shows Cleopatra, dead, sitting on a throne. She's wearing an ancient Egypitan headdress and a long draped dress. The dress is draped so that only her left breast is exposed.

The Death of Cleopatra (1867), Edmonia Lewis. Photograph © Caroline Léna Becker

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)
A modern photo of an old statue, displayed outside against a blue sky. The statue depicts an angel figure who is mid-step, reaching her hand forward, frozen in motion. She has big wings and a long flowing dress.

Angel of the Waters (1873), Emma Stebbins. Photograph © Jim Henderson

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.

Realistic white marble bust of a woman. She has short hair and a serious expression. We can only see her head and neck.

Charlotte Cushman (1859), Emma Stubbins

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.

A stylised watercolour portrait of a woman sitting at a table in a restaurant. She's smiling and looking off to the side. She's very fashionable, wearing a green dress, scarf and white gloves. On her table is a small glass with red liquid, a red rose and a water dispenser.

Lili Elbe (1928), Gerda Wegener

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.

Stylised illustration with clear lines and bright colours. Two women are lying on a large bed with lots of pillows. One of them is wearing a qhite dress pulled over her stomach to expose her genitals, and she is looking at a piece of paper. The other is naked apart from a pair of knee socks and high heels. She's leaning against the first woman and manually stimulating her genitals.

Illustration for Les Délassements de l’Éros (1925), Gerda Wegener

Jeanne Mammen (1890 – 1976)
Stylised, sketchy watercolour painting of a crowd dancing. Two women are in the foreground. One of them is in front of the other, dressed in masculine clothes with black pants, a vest, a scarf and a top hat. She has a smirk on her face and a confident posture. The other woman is wearing a party dress and is grabbing her shoulder. Her other hand is in the air and she's laughing in celebration.

Costume Ball, Berlin (c. 1930), Jeanne Mammen

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.

Two naked women are on a bare ground next to a big jungle. One of them is lying with her head in the other's lap. The ground is cracking next to them with roots showing. A small monkey is visible in the jungle, watching the pair.

Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself) (1939), Frida Kahlo

Conclusion

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. 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Hannah Spiegelman

    So interesting! You could have also mentioned the supposed queer relationships in the art work during the 19th and 20th centuries like Gertrude Stein.

  2. Chris

    This is a fantastic treatment of a subject no longer taboo, but, other than through postings such as yours, a subject still neglected. The care you took in producing this and the passion with which you curate and present subjects, descriptions, and illustrations are quite moving.

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