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European Art: Nineteenth Century  
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Symbolism, by definition, is based on the idea of the symbol, either the artist's personal symbol or a universal symbol known to all. Symbolist paintings are very visually-based, and are considered modern for what they represent rather than for the way they were painted. Symbolic sources ranged from classical mythology and poetics to obscure authors.

Critics have noted that the problem with Symbolism has been the difficulty of identifying the artists' symbolic language, as it is often very obscure. However, Symbolism offered homosexual artists an opportunity to explore their sexual identity in a veiled language.

Gustav Moreau

One of the most famous Symbolist artists was Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Moreau enters the canon of nineteenth-century European art as an academic painter in technique, but his subjects were noteworthy. Obsessed with painting recurring motifs, he chose as his favorite subjects mythological or Biblical themes, often interpreted today as queer in their construct. His numerous paintings of the Biblical Salome as a femme fatale conjure suggestions of incest and necrophilia.

Moreau also painted androgynous images of Narcissus and Saint Sebastian, both of whom were longstanding icons of same-sex desire. His paintings of Orpheus, also considered a homosexual symbol because of his rejection of women after losing his wife, reveal homoerotic desire in the softness and beauty of the figure.


In England, the artists Solomon and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) are considered by critics today to be Symbolists. Solomon's recurring motifs of youthful Eros figures or androgynous angels are homoerotic symbols for same-sex passion. His later works often depict disembodied heads such as Orpheus, Medusa, and others.

Beardsley established a career for himself by illustrating black and white hypersexual figures, ranging from sex-starved soldiers with enlarged phalluses in Aristophanes' Lysistrata to androgynous figures in Wilde's Salome. Beardsley socialized with many known homosexuals of the day, including Wilde's former lover and friend Robert Ross, but notably not Wilde himself.

Other Symbolists

Throughout Europe, Symbolist artists depicted queer subjects. Charles Filiger (1863-1928) painted cartoon-like depictions of saints, often paired in homosocial couplings. Like Solomon, he endured a homosexual scandal and spent much of his life working in private in the French countryside.

The Flemish artist Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) incorporated lesbian-based themes in many of his works. The artist Jean Delville (1867-1953), also from Belgium, painted homoerotic, androgynous disembodied heads like those of Moreau and Solomon. Delville also painted one of the gayest paintings of the fin-de-siècle. His School of Plato (1898) depicts a Christ-like philosopher in pink garments lecturing to his pupils, all nude or scantily dressed youths who listen to his every word while reclining in sexual poses alone or with other young men.

Male Nudes

The posing of youthful male nudes as in Delville's painting was not new and the veiled homoerotic message it sent became popular for a time. The English artist Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929) painted nude boys frolicking in natural settings. The German baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931) settled in Taormina, Sicily and established an artistic career for himself by taking staged photographs of nude or partially nude boys among the classical ruins of southern Italy.

Critics note that these paintings and photographss by Tuke and von Gloeden were widely popular throughout Europe because they depicted a "natural" setting. Furthermore, von Gloeden attempted to recapture the days of classical Greece and Rome by depicting the descendants of the ancients. However, for all the respectable naturalness and classicism of these works, there is little doubt that these images were also meant to be erotically charged and geared towards a male homosexual audience.


Homosexuality served as both an inspiration and way of life for many European artists during the nineteenth century. As the century progressed, new artistic trends and social theories worked together to give rise to a gay artistic sensibility. The flourishing of gay art and gay artists such as Bonheur and Solomon seem to be a part of the modernism that began at mid-century. However, Aestheticism and Symbolism met their premature demises due in part to their association with homosexuality, particularly as a result of the trials of Oscar Wilde.

Roberto C. Ferrari

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

arts >> Overview:  Arts and Crafts Movement

As part of its reaction against the industrialism of the nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized handcrafted decorative works of art and architecture, created medieval-type artists' guilds, which have been seen as homosocial.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Neoclassicism

Homoeroticism is a prominent presence in neoclassicism, an artistic movement noted for its masculine style, its appreciation of male beauty, and its privileging of ancient Greece and Rome as civilizations to be emulated.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus

Although the myth of Narcissus was originally intended as a moral fable against excessive pride, Narcissus has functioned in the arts as a symbol of same-sex passion, as well as of masturbation and effeminacy.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Females

While nude depictions of women appear in most cultures, on both sides of the equator, and in rich variety, lesbian artists have been particularly resourceful in their use of the female nude.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males

Throughout much of history, the nude male figure was virtually the only subject that could be used to articulate homoerotic desire in publicly displayed works of art, as well as those works of art intended for private "consumption."

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Orpheus

Although most artists since the Hellenistic age ignore the homosexual aspect of Orpheus, depicting him instead as the classical pattern of the poet-musician, notable exceptions are Colard Mansion and Albrecht Dürer.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sappho

Despite Sappho's status as most ancient lesbian foremother, her image is almost entirely absent from modern and contemporary lesbian art.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: St. Sebastian

Sebastian's broad and long-standing presence in queer artistic production suggests that he functions as an emblem of the feelings of shame, rejection, inverted desire, and loneliness endured by queer people in a homophobic society.

arts >> Overview:  Symbolists

The symbolist movement in painting and literature, which flourished in Europe from 1886 to 1905, was the first self-consciously queer movement in Western art history.

arts >> Abbéma, Louise

A painter in the Impressionist style, as well as an engraver, sculptress, and writer, Louise Abbéma is best known for her portraits and genre scenes and for her close relationship with Sarah Bernhardt.

arts >> Bazille, Jean-Frédéric

Early French Impressionist Jean-Frédéric Bazille is remembered as an artist of great talent whose full potential was never realized because of his early death.

arts >> Beardsley, Aubrey

English decadent and Symbolist artist Aubrey Beardsley made a lasting contribution to the art of illustration; a satirist with a gift for caricature and grotesquerie, Beardsley attacked Victorian sexual values.

arts >> Bonheur, Rosa

The most popular artist of nineteenth-century France and a renowned painter of animals, Rosa Bonheur lived in two consecutive committed relationships with women.

arts >> Cellini, Benvenuto

Sculptor, goldsmith, memoirist, and flamboyant pederast, Benvenuto Cellini is one of the greatest artists in the history of Western art.

arts >> Enckell, Magnus Knut

Painter Magnus Knut Enckell, whose works exhibit strong homoerotic overtones, was one of the leading figures in the art circles of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Finland.

arts >> Flandrin, Hippolyte

Nineteenth-century French artist Hippolyte Flandrin created studies of male youth that are richly homoerotic.

arts >> Géricault, Théodore

Throughout the work of Théodore Géricault, perhaps the best known nineteenth-century visual artist associated with Romanticism, is a discernible homoeroticism.

arts >> Gloeden, Wilhelm von, Baron

One of the earliest gay photographers of the male nude, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden created images that evoke a dreamy vision of forbidden desire, while also raising questions about sexual tourism and kitsch.

arts >> Jansson, Eugène Frederik

Eugène Jansson, sometimes described as Sweden's first gay artist, has only recently begun to receive the international attention that his accomplishments merit.

arts >> Klumpke, Anna Elizabeth

American-born artist Anna Elizabeth Klumpke is best known today as the last lover of acclaimed French painter Rosa Bonheur, but she was an accomplished artist in her own right.

arts >> Marées, Hans von

Nineteenth-century German painter Hans von Marées created homoerotic drawings and paintings, especially male nudes in bucolic settings or in scenes from classical mythology.

arts >> Meurent, Victorine

Best known as the model for a number of paintings by Édouard Manet, Victorine Meurent was also an artist in her own right; the loss of her identity has recently been seen as symbolic of the fate of women artists.

arts >> Michelangelo Buonarroti

The most famous artist who ever lived, Michelangelo left an enormous legacy in sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture, and poetry; while the artist's sexual behavior cannot be documented, the homoerotic character of his drawings, letters, and poetry is unmistakable.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

arts >> Ricketts, Charles (1866-1931), and Charles Shannon (1863-1937)

Versatile British artists Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were partners in life as well as in art; while pursuing independent careers, they also collaborated on a number of creative projects, including book design.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

literature >> Sand, George

The bisexual writer Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, better known as George Sand, is as infamous for her cigar-in-hand cross-dressing as she is famous for her eighty novels, twenty plays, and numerous political tracts.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

arts >> Solomon, Simeon

Known for his association with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, British artist Simeon Solomon created homoerotic works and suffered as a victim of late nineteenth-century English homophobia.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

arts >> Tuke, Henry Scott

British artist Henry Scott Tuke created works that celebrate the beauty of male youth, as well as the artist's lifelong love of the sea, swimming, and sailing.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Winckelmann, Johann Joachim

The art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the first German to have been publicly acknowledged as a homosexual, developed an aesthetic deeply rooted in his homosexuality.


Ashton, Dore. Rosa Bonheur: A Life and a Legend. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Brettell, Richard R. Modern Art 1851-1929: Capitalism and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1994.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Honour, Hugh. Neo-Classicism. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

_____. Romanticism. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.

Lucie-Smith, Edward. Symbolist Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

Newall, Christopher. The Art of Lord Leighton. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Reynolds, Simon. The Vision of Simeon Solomon. Stroud: Catalpa Press, 1984.

Rosenblum, Robert, and H. W. Janson. 19th-Century Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1984.

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


    Citation Information
    Author: Ferrari, Roberto C.  
    Entry Title: European Art: Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 24, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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