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European Art: Nineteenth Century  
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Examining homosexual content and individuals in European art of the nineteenth century is problematic. The contemporary terms gay, lesbian, and bisexual are anachronistic when applied too easily to earlier periods. Still, nineteenth-century European art is particularly important because during the nineteenth century the homosexual as an individual in the contemporary sense was first acknowledged and the seeds of modern gay consciousness may be discerned.

Some artists and art critics of the nineteenth century, such as Simeon Solomon and Oscar Wilde, among others, achieved a self-aware homosexual identity, which is expressed in both their lives and their works.

Lesbianism in nineteenth-century art, however, is only rarely depicted in terms of identity. More commonly, lesbians were depicted as sexual objects, with only a few artists such as Rosa Bonheur emerging as lesbians themselves.

European art of the nineteenth century encompasses a variety of movements and has been the subject of a great deal of scholarship, though only rarely does this scholarship emphasize gay issues.

Robert Rosenblum and H. W. Janson, for example, have written a superb overview of nineteenth-century European art, but their exclusion of artists such as Solomon can be seen as evidence of their reluctance to recognize gay contributions to art history.

Similarly, in his survey of modernism, Richard Brettel focuses in one chapter on gender and sexuality, but he discusses only briefly the development of a homosexual identity or its contribution to modern art. Conversely, the best overviews of gay art history, such as those by Emmanuel Cooper and James Saslow, tend to neglect nineteenth-century art.


Nineteenth-century art in Europe began with two movements that both originated in the latter half of the prior century: Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Encompassing literature and music as well as visual art, both movements were broadly conceived.

Neoclassicism was inspired by a revival of interest in Greco-Roman art and culture. Also influential on Neoclassical visual art was the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), who infused his critical appreciation of ancient Greek art with , most noticeably in his rapturous descriptions of the Apollo Belvedere.

The impact of Neoclassical visual art was most apparent in France where the earlier fantasy-based Rococo style of Watteau and Boucher was identified with the aristocracy. Neoclassicism was particularly associated with the ideals of the French Revolution and was seen as anti-aristocratic.

Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) is credited with the first Neoclassical painting, The Oath of the Horatii (1785), because its layout and framing are balanced and harmonized, and the subject was Roman-based, emphasizing allegiance to the state.

Neoclassical art is frequently homoerotic because it is "masculine" in contrast to the more "feminine" Rococo style. Subjects are often male-oriented classical myths and history, reinterpreted to emphasize their application to the revolutionary politics of the day. Men are often depicted nude, their sculpted physiques emphasizing idealized masculinity.

David's painting Leonidas at Thermopylae (1800-1814) is blatantly homoerotic not only because of the nude youths, but also because of the erect scabbard over the central figure's penis and the obvious affection of the men towards one another.

Other nineteenth-century artists who depicted homoeroticism in a Neoclassical style were Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and his mentee Hippolyte Flandrin (1809-1864).

Ingres was famous in his day as a Neoclassicist and critics often positioned him against the Romantic artist Delacroix. Ingres, however, was not a strict Neoclassicist in that he introduced sensuality in his figures. His nudes, such as Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) and The Turkish Bath (1859-1862), occasionally incite same-sex desire in their sensual depiction.

Much of Flandrin's art is homoerotic. It typically emphasizes male sexuality or glorifies the male form as a sensual, spiritual figure. His painting Figure d'Étude (1835-1836) has become a gay icon.


Because of its connection with revolution, Neoclassicism is perceived by art critics today as an offshoot of Romanticism, the movement that truly defined early nineteenth-century culture.

Romanticism was based on emotional representation and response. Romantic artists painted works that challenged the bourgeois mindset of the day, often featuring controversial subjects and focusing on the emotionally intense. It frequently attempted to shock. Romanticism generated the stereotype of the artist as a bad influence, an adventurer, often bisexual, who scandalized his audiences.

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1) Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by J. A. D. Ingres.
2) Sleep (1866) by Gustav Courbet.
3) Hercules and the Hydra (1876) by Gustav Moreau.
4) Under the Western Sun (1917) by Henry Scott Tuke.

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