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Patronage II: The Western World since 1900  
 
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Patronage--the sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of works from them--has remained a significant factor in the creation of visual culture in the modern era. Despite its relevance and importance, this topic has been largely neglected by scholars, but some representative case studies illustrate its centrality to glbtq art history.

Background

Since 1900, many artists have preferred to sell their works on the open market (for instance, through galleries) rather than to fulfill commissions. Increasingly, patronage has been regarded negatively because of perceived restrictions on an artist's independence. However, in reality, the commercial system can be more restrictive than traditional methods of patronage. In attempting to sell their works through galleries, artists often have had to modify their imagery or style in order to appeal to common denominators of taste and ideology. In the pre-Stonewall era, queer artists, especially those who developed provocative imagery or utilized unconventional styles in their work, had virtually no opportunities in the commercial art world.

Sponsor Message.

Largely excluded from the gallery system, some queer artists resorted to "self patronage" in order fund their creative endeavors. Although these self-supporting artists generally were overlooked in their lifetimes, their accomplishments and dedication have inspired later generations of queer artists.

Other artists benefited from interaction with wealthy patrons who fostered the creation of work that would be both distinctly queer and emphatically modernist. In the decades following the Stonewall Rebellion, large-scale public commissions have radically transformed the circumstances and character of queer art patronage and production.

Self Patronage: Alice Austen

Throughout the modern era, women have had considerably fewer opportunities than men to exhibit and sell works through mainstream venues. Among the many women artists who relied upon their own financial resources is Alice Austen (1860-1952), who produced an inspiring, comprehensive photographic record of lesbian life.

One of the first American women to become a photographer, Austen challenged stereotypes in many aspects of her life; for example, as an enthusiastic athlete, she won many prizes as she traveled throughout the country to compete in tennis matches during the 1890s. In 1876, her uncle gave her a large format camera, and she quickly mastered all current photography processes, including the development of bulky glass plates. By 1929, she had produced over 8,000 photographic plates.

Anticipating the genre of documentary photography, she preferred a sharp focus to the "blurry," picturesque effects of then fashionable photographers. She not only depicted the privileged lifestyle of her family and friends, but she also recorded many facets of New York that were considered inappropriate for a genteel Euro-American woman, including harbor activities and African-American neighborhoods. In 1896, she published a selection of these photographs in her book, Street Types of New York; in the same year, she provided illustrations for Bicycling for Ladies, a book by her friend, Violet Ward. By this time, she also had sold a significant number of images to popular magazines.

However, able to use income from stocks to support herself, Austen had resolved by the end of the 1890s to abandon commercial photography and to devote her energies to recording the private world that she shared with Ward and other women. Many of her images of friends are in tone--for instance, Julia and I in Bed (1890) and Julia Martin, Julia Brendt, and Self Dressed Up as Men (1891). Included in her photographs by 1899 is Gertrude Amelia Tate (ca 1871-1962), who quickly became her life partner, although she did not move into the Austen family home, Clear Comfort, on Staten Island, until 1917.

The crash of the stock market in 1929 forced Austen to abandon her photography and to support herself by turning her home into a boarding house and tea shop. Evicted from Clear Comfort in 1945, the impoverished Austen and Tate were forced by Tate's relatives to separate in 1950. However, the art historian Oliver Jensen helped raise funds to provide Austen with a comfortable residence, where she was reunited with Tate for the last few months of her life. In addition, Jensen secured the preservation of 3,000 of her photographic plates by the Staten Island Historical Society. This archive of photographs has stimulated many recent lesbian photographers.

Self Patronage: Romaine Brooks

Another self-supporting artist, the painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970, born Beatrice Romaine Goddard) created portraits of many of the leading figures in the expatriate colony of American lesbians in Paris. Born in Rome, Brooks grew up in a privileged but traumatic family atmosphere in various European and American cities, including Paris, Geneva, and New York. Although she revealed a precocious artistic talent, she did not begin studying art until 1898.

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zoom in
Two important queer patrons of twentieth-century art:
Top: Gertrude Stein in 1934. Portrait by Carl Van Vechten.
Above: Carl Van Vechten in 1934 (self-portrait).

  
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