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American Art: Gay Male, Nineteenth Century  
 
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Although homosexuality would not be categorized as a distinct type of "deviant" personality until the beginning of the twentieth century, heterosexual values were effectively imposed throughout American society during the nineteenth century. Men whose love for other men violated those norms concealed their personal lives from others, and they often suffered from severe feelings of guilt. Nevertheless, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, two of the most prominent American artists of the century, created numerous works celebrating same-sex camaraderie and affection.

Homer and Eakins both liked to depict archetypally "masculine" men, engaged in traditionally male activities, such as hunting and fighting. Near the end of the century, John Singer Sargent created definitive visual representations of the dandy, the androgynous figure who embodied the ideals of small, sophisticated urban circles, in which same-sex desire was accepted and even cultivated.

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Photographs of friends also provide important visual documentation about same-sex relationships in the nineteenth century.

Guilt and Fear

The life and career of the leading Romantic painter, Washington Allston (1773-1843), reveal the guilt and fear often experienced by gay men in nineteenth-century America. Although his choice of profession disconcerted his aristocratic South Carolina family, Allston otherwise tried to "live up to" their deeply entrenched social and moral ideals. To appease his family, he married twice. However, he never had any children, and he organized his affairs so as to have only minimal contact with his wives.

Allston's disinterest in women is suggested by his remarkably "cool" and aloof treatment of female figures in his paintings of mythological subjects, such as Dido and Anna (1805-1808). His desire for other men probably constituted the "propensity to sin," about which he berated himself throughout his life. References in the personal papers of the artist and his acquaintances reveal that the "partiality" he felt for certain of his male friends caused him great anxiety.

While Allston was resident in England between 1811 and 1818, he received numerous threats from blackmailers, who ultimately caused him to leave the country suddenly, without giving any notice to his patrons or friends. Thus, he appears to have been an early victim of the laws, instituted in Britain in 1810, that made a capital offense. Feelings of guilt deeply affected his productivity and inhibited his completion of many important projects, including major commissions from the United States government.

It has been suggested that Allston's extensive series of paintings of unconventional subjects about the life of Saint Peter (including The Denial of Saint Peter, 1811-1818, and The Angel Liberating Saint Peter from Prison, 1816) served as a means for him to articulate the conflicts caused by his homosexuality. Earlier artists usually had depicted Peter as weak and bewildered in their representations of these subjects. However, Allston consistently depicted Peter as an uncharacteristically handsome and muscular figure, nobly enduring the torments inflicted upon him by others. Thus, Peter seems to embody the strength and courage that Allston undoubtedly aspired to, but which he sadly was not able to realize in his life.

Male Camaraderie: Homer and Eakins

A prolific artist, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) produced many paintings and prints that represented and celebrated the camaraderie and intimate friendships of soldiers, hunters, and other men engaged in typically "masculine" outdoor occupations. Very unusually for a male artist of the nineteenth century, he also depicted the affection and enjoyment experienced by women together.

A solitary individual, Homer consistently refused to reveal any details about his personal life to biographers and art critics. His contemporaries attributed his "failure" to marry to his "shyness" around women, and most scholars continue to endorse this opinion.

One of Homer's closest friends was Albert Kelsey, with whom he shared a studio in Paris for two years (1867-1868). A posed, studio photograph made in Paris commemorates their relationship; Kelsey stands, with his linked hands and arms resting on the shoulders and back of his friend, who is seated on a tall Greek column. Significantly, on the back of his copy of the photograph, which he preserved for the rest of his life, Kelsey wrote "Damon and Phythias," a reference to the mythological heroes, who were devoted to one another. Later in his life, Homer made a witty drawing of Kelsey, riding nude on the back of a turtle in the Bahamas.

An extensive series of paintings and watercolors of the 1870s (including, among many other pieces, Waiting for an Answer, 1872; Reading, 1875; and Shall I Tell Your Fortune, 1876) often has been interpreted as an expression of Homer's feelings of frustration about the failure of a romance. The mood of tension and restlessness of these works, which greatly disconcerted critics in the 1870s, suggests the intensity of Homer's complex feelings about the ambiguous theme of the series.

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Top: The Flight of Florimell (1819) by Washington Allston.
Center: Max Schmidt in a Single Scull by Thomas Eakins.
Above: Gulf Storm by Winslow Homer.

  
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