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arts

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European Art: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) is often described as the prototype for the Romantic artist in the early nineteenth century. He lived a brief life, yet produced some of the most important European art. His work reflects a male world. He painted numerous images of soldiers on horseback.

Géricault's most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819), epitomizes Romanticism in its depiction on an immense canvas of a shocking contemporary news story (a shipwrecked crew forced into cannibalism to survive). The male figures, despite their dying state, have idealized physiques, and their physical prowess is arranged in a fluid motion towards the erect black man who waves down a passing ship.

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Neoclassicism and Romanticism as art movements died out by the 1840s, although many of the new trends in art that followed can be perceived as offshoots of these movements. The two countries where these new movements flourished were France and England, their capital cities sharing in importance as major art centers. As these new "modern" art trends thrived, so too did the cultural development of same-sex desire.

France

From the rubble of the revolutions and the rise of the lower classes, a respect and admiration for simplicity and everyday living became popular in art. Called Realism, this new trend in art originated in the works of artists such as Géricault and Delacroix in France and Constable and Turner in England. The trend of French Realism took a new turn with the work of Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).

Courbet's approach to Realism was based on his view of the world. His most famous painting, The Studio of the Painter: A Real Allegory Concerning Seven Years of My Artistic Life (1854-1855), objectified the artist and his view of the world as the center of the universe.

The physical manifestation of the nude woman, Muse or model, behind Courbet in this painting is balanced by the nude Christ-like figure hanging behind the canvas. While the erotic presence of each is not uncommon, the centrality on Courbet's canvas of both figures surrounding the artist makes their erotic depiction especially suggestive.

Depictions of Lesbianism

Courbet's paintings are typically homosocial, often representing the world of the artist and his male friends. However, Courbet is among the few artists of the century whose depiction of lesbianism is noteworthy. For example, in his painting Sleep (1866), he depicts two women, one brunette and one blonde, asleep. Both are nude and their limbs are intertwined.

Courbet was no doubt painting the heterosexual male fantasy of two women together, which some would argue is not lesbianism in the truest sense. Nevertheless, its depiction of same-gender sex is clearly homoerotic.

Other lesbian-themed works, not uncommon in nineteenth-century France, were produced during the Impressionist movement by artists such as Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec.

In addition to lesbian scenes, the Impressionist Jean-Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) also painted homoerotic works depicting nude men, such as Summer Scene (1869). Interestingly, two of Bazille's contributions to the Salon, the male homoerotic Fisherman with a Net and the lesbian La Toilette, were both rejected the same year.

Rosa Bonheur

Lesbianism as an artistic trend arguably has its origins in nineteenth-century France. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was famous as both an artist and a lesbian in her day. Encouraged at an early age to pursue art by her father, the artist Raimond Bonheur, she favored the Realist school, and painted landscapes and animals in works such as The Horse Fair (1887).

Bonheur never seems to have painted lesbian-themed work, but she lived as a bohemian artist. She wore men's clothing like the French author George Sand. She had obtained governmental permission to don masculine garb in order to be a better Realist painter by examining nature (for example, farm animals) more closely.

Bonheur never married, but instead maintained a 45-year live-in relationship with Nathalie Micas. After Micas's death, she had a relationship with the American artist Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, whom she lovingly and publicly referred to as her wife. Bonheur left her entire estate to Klumpke upon her death. All three women were buried together in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

England

In 1848 a group of rebellious young artists decided to break away from the traditions of the Royal Academy; they created the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their credo was that all art since the time of Raphael was poor. They favored instead the art of the Italian quattrocento, including the work of early Renaissance masters such as Masaccio and Botticelli.

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