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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. The great esteem in which she was held in the classical era was certainly reflected in visual art of the period; statues of her were erected in public places and coins were struck bearing her portrait. Some of these were later collected by Renée Vivien during a "pilgrimage" to Lesbos.

Sappho was an occasional subject for the "historical" painters of Victorian England, particularly Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. Sappho was probably chosen as the subject of these paintings because in painting the historical figure, "accuracy" could justify otherwise scandalous images of scantily-clad young women.

Alma Tadema depicted Sappho for the same reason that he painted the frenzy of the Maenads or girlish frolics in Roman bath-houses: these subjects provided maximum opportunity for titillation. Alma Tadema's Sappho is, moreover, pointedly heterosexual.

Another Victorian, Simeon Solomon, also painted Sappho in the "classical" style. But Simeon's own homosexuality lends this work a darker eroticism. In his famous painting Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864, displayed in the Tate Gallery, London), Erinna swoons with desire in Sappho's embrace.

Feminist artists, of whatever sexuality, have largely ignored her. The "women of the Left Bank," expatriate lesbians from England and the United States who gathered in Paris between the world wars, certainly took inspiration from Sappho, but they did not paint or draw her.

Later in the twentieth century, heterosexual artist Judy Chicago included Sappho in her Dinner Party project (1974-1979), in which famous women from history are each represented by an embroidered place-setting and a sculpted ceramic plate, but this is one of only a handful of images.

Given that feminist and lesbian artists commonly make use of other female figures from classical times, the paucity of representations of Sappho is puzzling.

Tamsin Wilton


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Top: A Pompeiian fresco believed to depict Sappho (ca 300-400 C. E.).
Above: Sappho and Alcaeus (1881) by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema.

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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

arts >> Chicago, Judy

American painter and sculptor Judy Chicago has contributed to gay and lesbian culture through her feminist critique of heterosexuality and patriarchy.

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 >> Vivien, Renée

Renée Vivien, who had many affairs with women, openly celebrated lesboerotic love in her poetry and dreamed of women-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically confined.


Chicago, Judy. Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework. New York: Doubleday, 1980.

Morgan, Thaïs. "Perverse Male Bodies: Simeon Solomon and Algernon Charles Swinburne." Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Cultures. Peter Horne and Reina Lewis, eds. London: Routledge, 1996. 61-85.

Weiss, Andrea. Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank. London: Pandora, 1995.

Wilton, Tamsin. Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda. London: Routledge, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Wilton, Tamsin  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sappho  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 11, 2006  
    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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