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American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
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American lesbian art in the earlier twentieth century was indelibly shaped by the expatriate experience, especially by the salons of Paris, and by the emergence of a more democratic art form, photography, which allowed marginalized communities to document their lives and experiences. After World War II, however, many lesbians felt enormous pressure to retreat into the closet.

Expatriates in Paris

Like the generation that preceded them, American women artists of the early twentieth century went to Europe to seek a less-restricted environment in which to develop their art and many went back and forth between the continents.

In Paris an international group of artists and intellectuals congregated around the literary salons of expatriate American lesbians Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and her partner Alice Toklas (1877-1967), both writers and art patrons; and that of the publicly lesbian Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972), nicknamed "The Amazon" for her love of equestrianism. Barney, a wealthy poet and author from Washington, D.C., hosted her weekly salon for sixty years.

Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, and later moved to New York City, where her first job was as a reporter and illustrator. A painter, she eventually also became a poet, playwright, and novelist, and illustrated her own books.

In 1921 Barnes went to Paris as a correspondent for McCall's magazine; she remained for twenty years. She became part of a circle of writers, including Stein and Barney, who became known as "the Academy of Women" or "the Literary Women of the Left Bank." Her Ladies Almanack (1928) is a satire about the group and is infused with lesbian eroticism. Nightwood (1932) is based on the breakup of Barnes's love affair in Paris with Thelma Wood (1901-1970), an American sculptor and graphic artist.

Photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1981) originally moved to New York from Ohio to be a sculptor. There she met and fell in with an artistic crowd that included Barnes. She moved to Paris in 1921, where she changed the spelled of her name from "Bernice" to the more cosmopolitan "Berenice." Working as artist and photographer Man Ray's darkroom assistant, Abbott learned photography and opened her own studio. She also rediscovered and rescued the work of nearly-forgotten vieux Paris photographer Eugène Atget.

Abbott specialized in portraits of women, many of them lesbian expatriates, though her most famous image is her poignant portrait of author James Joyce (1928). Her study of flamboyantly cross-dressed lesbian author Janet Flanner (1927) is one of her more overtly subjects; she also photographed lovers Barnes and Wood.

In 1929 Abbott returned to live in the United States; her Changing New York documentary project (1935-1939) was her defining work and also defined that era in the city. Although she associated with lesbians throughout her career, Abbott never discussed her sexuality and was closeted throughout her life. In 1985 the artist Kaucyila Brooke wrote to Abbott regarding her lesbianism; Abbott vehemently responded: "I am a photographer, not a lesbian."

One of the most prominent lesbian artists among the expatriates was Romaine Brooks (1874-1970), born Beatrice Romaine Goddard in Rome. By her recollection she had a peripatetic, abusive childhood. Forced as a child to draw clandestinely because her mother forbade it, Brooks emancipated herself at twenty-one and moved to Europe, exploring her creative possibilities in Italy and England before settling in Paris in 1905. She was briefly married in 1902 to a gay musician, John Ellingham Brooks; that same year her mother's death left her independently wealthy.

Brooks was primarily a portraitist who painted mostly women--herself, her friends, and her lovers. Interested in and gender roles, she exalted a kind of heroic female or "woman warrior" in her depictions. Brooks's paintings have a dominant gray palette, an austerity that extended into her home décor as well.

In 1915 Brooks, then forty-one, met Barney; they would remain together for nearly fifty years. Her portrait of Barney, The Amazon (1920, Musée Carnavalet, Paris), is one of Brooks's best-known works. Cross-dressed subjects appear throughout her oeuvre, including her portrait of the British lesbian artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein, 1895-1978) entitled Peter: A Young English Girl (1923-1924, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution), and her study of the lover of novelist Radclyffe Hall, Una, Lady Troubridge (1924, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

But her most important work in this genre is her 1923 Self Portrait (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution). This work boldly establishes a lesbian identity in the visual arts. In her later years Brooks wrote two unpublished memoirs of her life: "No Pleasant Memories" and "A War-Time Interlude."

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A photograph of buildings in New York City by Berenice Abbott.
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