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Parsons, Betty (1900-1982)  

American artist and gallery owner Betty Parsons retreated into the closet during the McCarthy years, but she supported gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists during a period of repression.

Betty Bierne Pierson was born into a wealthy New York City family in 1900. Influenced by the innovative art she saw in the famous Armory show of 1913, she sought out what she thought of as "new" in art for the rest of her life.

In 1920, she married Schuyler Livingston Parsons (1892-1967), a rich, homosexual alcoholic, eight years her senior. The marriage lasted three years.

Betty Parsons, as she would be known for the rest of her life, divorced in Paris in 1923 and remained there for the next decade, supported by alimony. She sought out older members of the expatriate lesbian community such as Natalie Clifford Barney, Romaine Brooks, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas.

She had her portrait made by photographer Berenice Abbott, two years her senior, and was taken under the wing of Janet Flanner, who wrote for The New Yorker under the pen name "Genet."

For eight of the ten years Parsons lived in Paris, she conducted a love affair with a woman, the English painter Adge Baker, with whom she maintained a friendship for the rest of her life.

The great depression ended Parsons' financial support. She returned to the United States in 1933. She spent two years in southern California where she had male lovers, crushes on a few women, and a serious flirtation--if not actual sex--with Greta Garbo.

After serving an apprenticeship in the New York art world, Parsons opened the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City in 1946. Through exhibiting select abstract art and giving the Abstract Expressionists their first public exposure, the gallery became one of the most prestigious of the mid-twentieth century. It closed in 1981, a year before Parsons' death.

From the mid-1940s until the mid-1950s, Parsons was involved in a passionate--though not exclusive--relationship with actress and painter Strelsa van Scriver (ca 1915-1963). Quite open about her lesbianism while she lived in Paris in the l920s and 1930s, she, however, became closeted in the more repressive atmosphere of the United States following World War II.

Nevertheless, Parsons exhibited the work of a number of lesbian and gay male artists, including Sonia Sekula (1918-1963), a Swiss-born openly lesbian painter, and the much more private Agnes Martin (b. 1912). Among the gay male or bisexual artists whose work she sponsored are Forrest Bess (1911-1977), Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997), Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), and Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990).

Parsons was also herself an artist. Each summer she closed the gallery and concentrated on her own painting and sculpture, ultimately showing in high profile galleries.

Conscious of the in the art world and fearful of being ostracized, Parsons maintained an air of privacy about her personal life. Yet she agreed to biographer Lee Hall's request for full disclosure about her life. Parsons' forthrightness allowed Hall to write about Parsons' life with an unusual openness, which was not how she lived.

Parsons' support of gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists at a time of social oppression and her willingness to have the fullness of her life shared in her biography mark important contributions to lesbian and gay history and culture.

Tee A. Corinne


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Betty Parsons in an interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein on YouTube.
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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Prior to Stonewall, most gay artists were closeted, but they were inventive in creating codes for those in the know; after 1945 some adventurous artists developed independent networks for the distribution of works of gay art.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, 1900-1969

American lesbian art in the earlier twentieth century was indelibly shaped by the expatriate experience and by the emergence of a more democratic art form, photography, as well as by the intense pressure following World War II to retreat into the closet.

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 >> 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.

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.

literature >> Beach, Sylvia

Through her Parisian bookshop and her editorial work, American expatriate and lesbian Sylvia Beach did much to influence the course of modern literature.

arts >> Bess, Forrest

Artist Forrest Bess was a mystic who sought to fuse male and female in his life and work; in small abstract pieces, he represented his visions, which, he believed, contained the secret of immortality.

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 >> Garbo, Greta

Mysterious, aloof, occasionally androgynous, actress Greta Garbo ignited the passions of men and women alike.

arts >> Rauschenberg, Robert

One of the most prolific and innovative artists of the late twentieth century, Robert Rauschenberg was at the core of a group of interdisciplinary artists who revolutionized American art.

arts >> Robinson, Jack

Photographer Jack Robinson came to prominence as a result of the stunning fashion and celebrity photographs he shot for magazines in the 1960s, but he also created significant images that document the gay subculture of New Orleans in the 1950s.

arts >> Sekula, Sonja

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

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.


Gibson, Ann. Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

_____. "Lesbian Identity and the Politics of Representation in Betty Parson's Gallery." Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. Whitney Davis, ed. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994. 245-270.

Hall, Lee. Betty Parsons: Artist, Dealer, Collector. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991.


    Citation Information
    Author: Corinne, Tee A.  
    Entry Title: Parsons, Betty  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 11, 2012  
    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.  


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