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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sex Workers  
page: 1  2  

The Art of Early Modern Europe

In contrast to the situation in Tokugawa Japan, scenes of queer sex workers were relatively rare in early modern Europe, no doubt because of the rigorous suppression of any type of "deviant" behavior. However, it seems likely that many of Caravaggio's early scenes of youths (such as The Musicians, 1596) represent the street hustlers with whom he is known to have associated.

A pair of eighteenth-century Venetian prints evokes the allure of sex workers. One of these images depicts a full-bosomed woman in male attire; the other shows a lavishly dressed man, whose (apparently) very large penis has caused his skirts to bulge out.

Most preserved early modern European images depict queer sex work from a very negative point of view. For instance, a sixteenth century Italian majolica plate depicts a monk with a large money bag lustily pointing at the buttocks of a naked boy beneath an inscription that can be translated "I am a monk, I act like a hare."

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, several Symbolist artists catered to the fascination of avant-garde circles with "decadence." Thus, the Belgian artist Félicien Rops produced numerous engravings of lesbian brothel scenes, with notably morbid overtones.

Pre-Stonewall Twentieth-Century Art

In the context of the emerging gay and lesbian communities in major American and European cities in the pre-Stonewall era of the twentieth century, several artists provided more objective images of queer sex work.

For example, in a remarkable series of watercolors, which he allowed only his most intimate gay friends to see, Charles Demuth depicted the solicitation of street hustlers and other types of anonymous sexual encounters. In many of his exhibited paintings, Paul Cadmus also included coded references to queer sex work.

For lesbian and other feminist magazines published in the free environment of 1920s Berlin, Jeanne Mammen created numerous illustrations of the women's club "scene," which prominently featured lesbian sex workers.

Physique Pictorial (published by Bob Mizer from 1952 to 1992) and other "underground" erotic publications of the post-World War II era included many images of paid sexual encounters and other activities that flagrantly challenged the legal restrictions of mainstream society.

Similarly, lurid covers (and texts) of women's pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s often presented provocative images of lesbian sex workers.

Andy Warhol literally starred gay and bisexual sex workers in several of his early, kitschy films, most notably Blow Job (1963). Later in his career, Warhol incorporated sex work into the making of his art by hiring street hustlers to urinate on his Oxidation Paintings (1978).

Post-Stonewall Art

In the post-Stonewall era, several queer artists have made sex work a primary theme of their work. Prominent among them is David Wojnarowicz, who depicted his experiences as a street hustler in fiercely angry, yet intensely erotic, paintings and prints, as well as in powerful prose works.

Wojnarowicz's close friend, photographer Peter Hujar, created dignified portraits of queer and transgender sex workers. Hujar often suggested the inner strength that enabled his subjects to cope with poverty and other difficulties.

The world of hustlers and their clients is also depicted in several works by Patrick Angus.

Queer and transgender sex workers also are featured prominently in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and other ongoing photographic projects by Nan Goldin. Her loving and inclusive representation of gay and transgender sex workers as an essential part of the panorama of her extended family signifies an important transformation in the treatment of this important subject.

Richard G. Mann

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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: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, American gay male art underwent a radical transformation as artists came out and began to treat gay themes openly and directly.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Since Stonewall, lesbian artists in America, from installation artists to filmmakers and photographers to performance artists and painters, have become increasingly diverse and visible.

arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

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

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Twentieth Century

A large number of significant twentieth-century European artists focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender themes, making such concerns crucial to the understanding of twentieth-century European art.

arts >> Overview:  Indian Art

Not only is sexuality celebrated in Indian art, but many of India's gods also consider gender to be a fluid affair, sometimes manifesting as androgynes and sometimes switching gender altogether.

arts >> Overview:  Japanese Art

Japanese art, from the prehistoric period onward, features images that can be given queer readings as well as a wide range of representations that contemporary viewers would understand to be homosexual.

arts >> Overview:  Pulp Paperbacks and Their Covers

Despite the stereotyping of their cover art and their pathologizing of lesbianism, the American pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s subverted the social and political prohibitions against homosexual expression during the McCarthy era.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sex Work and Prostitution: Female

Sex work has long been the last resort of desperate women and girls, but more recently some women--including some lesbians--have been drawn to the profession by a renegade ideology of sexual liberation.

social sciences >> Overview:  Sex Work and Prostitution: Male

Sex workers range from well-organized professionals who work for escorting agencies, perform in pornographic films, or manage independent escort businesses to those who engage in unpremeditated and sporadic cash transactions resulting from casual encounters.

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 >> Adrian-Nilsson, Gösta (GAN)

Regarding his sexuality as a fundamental component of his creativity, Swedish painter Gosta Adrian-Nilsson, known as GAN, fostered the development of modernist art in his native country.

arts >> Angus, Patrick

American realist artist Patrick Angus produced keenly observed and compassionate depictions of the gay underclass of the 1980s.

arts >> Cadmus, Paul

American painter Paul Cadmus is best known for the satiric innocence of his frequently censored paintings of burly men in skin-tight clothes, but he also created works that celebrate same-sex domesticity.

arts >> Caravaggio

The most original painter of early seventeenth-century Europe, Caravaggio imbues his art with homoeroticism.

arts >> Demuth, Charles

One of America's first modernist painters, Charles Demuth was also one of the earliest artists in this country to expose his gay identity through forthright, positive depictions of homosexual desire.

arts >> Hujar, Peter

Photographer Peter Hujar created stark, stunning, affecting , and sometimes disturbing images in black and white.

arts >> Kabuki

Kabuki, a classic Japanese theatrical form incorporating fantastical costumes, stylized gestures, music, and dance, originally showcased female and boy prostitutes, but now features all-male casts.

arts >> Mammen, Jeanne

One of the most talented artists to emerge from Germany's Weimar epoch, Jeanne Mammen created some of the most sympathetic depictions of lesbians since Sappho.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as artist)

The avatar of Pop Art, Andy Warhol expressed desire in his images of celebrities and flouted traditional notions of masculinity by embracing extravagance, effeminacy, and an obsession with surface appearances.

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as filmmaker)

Although Andy Warhol is generally remembered either for a single film--Sleep (1963)--or for works that he did not actually direct, his contribution to gay cinema is incalculable.

arts >> Wojnarowicz, David

The first gay American artist to respond to the AIDS crisis with anger and moral outrage, David Wojnarowicz used his art as a polemical tool with which to indict those he held responsible for the AIDS epidemic and to document his own suffering.


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

Davis, Whitney, ed. Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994.

Leupp, Gary P. Male Colors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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


    Citation Information
    Author: Mann, Richard G.  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sex Workers  
    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 10, 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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