glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
page: 1  2  3  

Out of or Back to the Closet?

While lesbians were active in all aspects of the art world in the earlier twentieth century, their openness about their sexual orientation varied considerably. Some, such as Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, were publicly lesbian, while the lesbianism of others was frequently unknown to all but their intimates. The climate of acceptance in the art world, while perhaps never as full as one would wish, changed considerably after World War II, when enormous pressure was placed on gay men and lesbians to retreat into the closet.

Betty Parsons (1900-1982) was a painter and renowned art dealer in New York for four decades. She was open about her bisexual affairs in the 1920s and 1930s but she withdrew to the closet after World War II, just as she achieved particular prominence as a dealer.

Parsons ran the Wakefield Gallery and Bookshop in New York from 1940 until 1944 and in 1946 opened the Betty Parsons Gallery, which specialized in Abstract Expressionism, a genre predominantly associated white heterosexual males. At one time her gallery represented the work of Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and others. Seven of these "Giants," however, left Parsons in 1951 when she would not focus exclusively on them, even though she had promoted their work more actively than that of her other artists.

Increasingly she began to show more of her "alternative" artists such as Swiss lesbian Abstract Expressionist Sonja Sekula (1918-1963), whom Parsons represented from 1948 until 1957. Years later, speaking to her biographer, Parsons explained the need to disavow her lesbianism: "You see, they hate you if you are different; everyone hates you and they will destroy you. I had seen enough of that. I didn't want to be destroyed."

It is no wonder, then, that with such opposition many serious bisexual and lesbian artists who emerged in the first half of the century remained closeted, or at least quiet, about their orientations. But theirs may have been the last generation to subvert their identities in order to further their careers. Increasingly, hand-in-hand with the burgeoning feminist movement, gays and lesbians were unwilling to settle for silence and second-best. By the 1960s, they had become increasingly vocal about demanding their equal rights in all aspects of their lives, and with those rights would come visibility.

Carla Williams

  <previous page   page: 1  2  3    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about The Arts

   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, Nineteenth Century

The accomplishments of American lesbian artists in the nineteenth century, some of whom are only now receiving recognition, is all the more remarkable for the obstacles they faced as women and as homosexuals.

literature >> Overview:  Amazons

Historically either distrusted as agents of chaos or admired as examples of female power and intelligence, Amazons were depicted as heterosexual until the twentieth century, when lesbians adopted them as symbols of powerful women living without men.

arts >> Overview:  Patronage II: The Western World since 1900

Patronage--the sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of works from them--has remained a significant factor in the creation of queer visual culture in the modern era.

arts >> Overview:  Photography: Lesbian, Pre-Stonewall

The most significant examples of pre-Stonewall lesbian photography convey relationships, reflect lesbian iconography, or show the photographer looking at and recording her beloved.

arts >> Overview:  Salons

Often overlooked in mainstream publications on the cultural history of salons is that many of the salon hostesses and attendees were lesbian, bisexual, or gay.

arts >> Abbott, Berenice

American photographer Berenice Abbott made memorable images of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men in Paris in the 1920s and in New York from the 1930s through 1965.

arts >> Austen, Alice

One of the first American women to become a photographer, Alice Austen defied conventions and challenged stereotypes in nearly every aspect of her life.

literature >> Barnes, Djuna

American novelist Djuna Barnes sought new forms of self-representation of lesbians in the face of society's compulsory heterosexuality.

literature >> Barney, Natalie Clifford

In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

arts >> Brooks, Romaine

The female nudes and portraits of cross-dressed women made American artist Romaine Brooks's lesbian identity known to the world.

literature >> Flanner, Janet

An expatriate journalist, novelist, and translator, Janet Flanner spent most of her adult life in Paris with her lover Solita Solano.

arts >> Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein)

The British artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) defied the conventions of her class and time, but left her mark on the history of modern art in England.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

arts >> Hammer, Barbara

The most prolific lesbian feminist filmmaker in the history of cinema, Barbara Hammer creates works that are among the most thoughtful celebrations of queer life.

arts >> Henri, Florence

American-born artist Florence Henri produced a wide range of photography in the 1920s and 1930s, including still lifes, portraits, nudes, advertising images, and photomontages.

arts >> Johnston, Frances Benjamin

Pioneering photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston served as the official White House photographer during several administrations and earned fame as a photojournalist and documentary photographer.

arts >> Nevelson, Louise

Flamboyant bisexual sculptor Louise Nevelson, an American of Russian Jewish heritage, specialized in painted wooden walls and boxes that reflected cubist and pre-Columbian influences.

arts >> Parsons, Betty

American artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons retreated into the closet after World War II, but her support of gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists during a time of repression and her later candor are important contributions to glbtq history.

arts >> Sekula, Sonja

Swiss-born artist Sonja Sekula created small-scale abstract images with profound emotional power.

arts >> Squire, Maud Hunt (1873-1955) and Ethel Mars (1876-1956)

American artists and lifelong partners Maud Hunt Squire and Ethel Mars forged distinguished careers in book illustration, painting, and woodblock printing.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

arts >> Wood, Thelma Ellen

Although she is best known for her affair with Djuna Barnes, as depicted in Barne's classic novel Nightwood, Thelma Wood was herself an artist; originally a sculptor, she also practiced the obscure craft of silverpoint drawing.


Borzello, Frances. A World of Our Own: Women Artists since the Renaissance. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2000.

Bright, Deborah, ed. The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

Chadwick, Whitney. Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Davis, Whitney, ed. Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. Binghamton, N. Y.: The Haworth Press, 1994.

Duberman, Martin, ed. Queer Representations: Reading Lives, Reading Cultures. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Hall, Lee. Betty Parsons. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.

Novotny, Ann. Alice's World: The Life and Photography of an American Original, Alice Austen, 1866-1952. Old Greenwich, Conn.: The Chatham Press, 1976.

Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York: Viking, 1999.

Secrest, Meryle. Between Me and Life: A Biography of Romaine Brooks. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Francis Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress:

Emma Jane Gay:


    Citation Information
    Author: Williams, Carla  
    Entry Title: American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 28, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


This Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc. is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.