Queer Female Visibility in Art History: Contemporary Conflation or Intentional Invisibility?

Marquita De Jesus

Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock suggests that the general absence of women in the history of art is not “the result of forgetfulness, negligence, or prejudice. It should be understood as the result of a systematic effort to perpetuate (an) ideological apparatus and the gender hierarchy in our society.”  Pollock suggests interpreting feminist art history as “feminist intervention” in art’s histories to change the present by means of how we re-present the past.

Pollock explores the complex relationships between gender, power, and representation, demonstrating how these themes are essential to the reconstruction of female identity and progress. Although Pollock is speaking on behalf of women generally, it is important to note that women with intersectional identities experience the least amount of representation and visibility in art history. The need to decentralize and diversify knowledge, identify instances of intentional invisibility, and design resistance strategies specific to socio-political context for marginalized women has to be a key component of feminist intervention in art history.

Linda Nochlin argues that the subject of women in art history stands to, “become a catalyst, an intellectual instrument, probing basic and ‘natural’ assumptions, providing a paradigm for other kinds of internal questioning, and in turn providing links with paradigms established by radical approaches in other fields.”  Specifically, the study of queer visibility in art could potentially highlight early attempts by artists to question patriarchal and moral notions of femininity. A casual review of art history could have one assume that the subject of queer identity in art is a contemporary cultural phenomenon. However, queer female representation can be found in artwork created more than two hundred years ago, acknowledging the multidimensional factors contributing to the historical erasure of queer female identity.

Emerging scholarship in queer art history highlights the personal, political and institutional elements involved in the historical oppressive power of dominant norms, particularly those norms relating to sexuality. Unlike traditional approaches to art history which has its subject of study defined, the study of queer art history is, in many ways, a history without a proper object (Binhammer, 2009). Since sexuality is foundational to agency and the reclamation of power, the study of how masculinist culture negates, neutralizes, and interprets queer identity both intentionally and unintentionally informs how we study artistic representations of queer female sexuality.

Cathy Caruths’ Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History proposes that history can no longer be treated as a straightforward model of reference. The widespread and bewildering experience of trauma and invisibility brings us to a new conversation about history, identity construction, and female agency. If history represents a series of traumas, then our communal understanding of women and their sexual identity must evolve beyond perceived invisibility.

The knowledge of and representation for queer women in art history brings forth additional frameworks of feminist activism and intervention, allowing scholars and students to reframe the experiences of women from the past. The relationship between systems of representation and ideology that inform visual language and labeling contributes to both the reduction and erasure of the vastness of female identity.

Before the 18th century, queer identifying categories like “lesbian” and “bisexual” did not exist in Europe. Referred to as a ‘deviant’ sexuality, same sex attraction between women was considered to be a moral failure. The first known instance of the word “homosexual” being used was not until 1868 in Germany. Although modern sexual labels did not exist during this time, various sexual orientations did exist. For the purposes of contemporary inquiry it is necessary to avoid the conflation of labels with queer existence.

The 18th and 19th centuries offered a shift in queer female representation in art and literature in European society. Same sex love between women, both as an emerging identity and as artistic subject matter, became part of the French artistic underground.  In his 1816 text Le Nouveau Monde Amororeux, Charles Fourier argued that lesbians “defend liberty more than anyone else” and therefore deserved a place in his work (Oredsson, 2016).  In addition to Fourier, Bohemian writer George Sand wrote about same-sex female desire in her controversial 1833 book Léila. With regard to the arts, eighteenth century painters Courbet (1819–1877) and Solomon (1840-1905) were also interested in the exploration of intimacy and excesses of queer sexuality.

Courbet is quoted saying, “Beauty, like truth, is relative to the time when one lives and to the individual who can grasp it.” Courbet was a Realist and aimed to display the truth as objectively as possible. Like many French Realists, Courbet wanted to portray the lower class of society in his Realist works, painting working class people, dancers, bartenders, sex workers, peasants and queer women (Kosinski, 1988). Coubet's Le Sommeil was not exhibited publicly until 1988. When it was exhibited by a dealer in 1872, it was reported to the police (Kosinski, 1988). This work provoked much discussion about flaws in Courbet's character and art, but Courbet enjoyed the attention, which increased his reputation as a confrontational artist. This painting was so influential that it inspired numerous artists in 19th century Europe to draw inspiration from queer women. In doing so, this trend of queer representation led to the first depictions of queer women as new models of embodied freedom.

Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon also drew inspiration from the intimacy of queer female relationships.  One of the most famous of his works is Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene which was completed in 1864. It shows Sappho embracing her fellow poet Erinna with two doves above their heads, symbols of their divine love. Sappho has dark and slightly androgynous features, representing a 'masculine' compliment to Erinna's soft femininity, a softness that is emphasized by her pinkish flesh tones and her partially exposed breasts.

At the age of thirty-two and at the height of his artistic career, Solomon was arrested twice for sodomy and admitted to two separate private asylums, likely at the request of his family, but both visits were brief and the artist was discharged and listed as “unimproved” (Ferrari, 2010). Despite this extreme misfortune, Simeon Solomon continued his work. His work found its way to Oxford’s student halls where a new generation of young queer students, including Oscar Wilde, were introduced to Solomon’s androgynous and queer imagery (Ferrari, 2010). 

While history of queer identity and visibility in art is fragmented and often intentionally erased, scholarship has proven to be an extremely important, albeit difficult, endeavor. Such scholarship is an invitation to historians to not only continue examining representations of queer women, but encourages unpacking other identities that remain underrepresented in art history.  Analyzing these works effectively creates an analytic category that explores the ways in which identity is expressed and shared over time.   Representations of queer female identity demonstrate agency, self-definition and a reclamation of power. The history of ideas and ideologies surrounding sexuality’s importance informs what we know and how we read works from the past.