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The 19th century was full of incredible lesbian artwork, and here’s the proof

Bea Mitchell September 22, 2017
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Tomboyish flappers, embracing lovers and “mesdam’messieurs” are just some of the sapphic women depicted in this beautiful vintage lesbian art.

Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France – a collection of late 19th century and early 20th century lesbian artwork – features a number of rare illustrations, photographs and cartoons from the “decadent movement”.

The book, which recently won a Goldie (Golden Crown Literary Society Award) for Lesbian Nonfiction, delves into the “decadent movement” – a late 19th century period fascinated with lesbianism, as well as self-indulgence, drugs, perversion, crude humour and sensuality.

(Yes, we want to go there too.)

Originally written in French by Nicole G Albert, Lesbian Decadence has been translated into English by Nancy Erber and William Peniston, and republished and expanded by the LGBTQ scholarly imprint Harrington Park Press.

Check out a selection of the book’s art right here before you rush out to buy a copy…

Fabien Fabiano, Proverbe en image: L’union fait la force / An Illustrated Proverb: Unity Makes Strength, in Les Petites Femmes de “La Vie parisienne” (1910)

Here, artist Fabiano shows the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of a drunk gentleman, as the female lovers – half-undressed, wearing slips and stockings – attempt to hold the door closed.

Cover illustration by Étienne le Rallic for Ces Dames de Lesbos / These Ladies of Lesbos by Renée Dunan (1928)

In this slim volume illustrated with the image of two stylish and tomboyish flappers embracing, little-known novelist Renée Dunan retraced the history of sapphism through the ages.

After an introduction focusing on Lesbos in antiquity, Renée documented lesbianism in Babylon, the Amazon women and Corinth, as well as Rome, the Ottoman sultan, the court of Louis XV, Hollywood, London and Paris.

Le Bracelet / The Bracelet by Erté, an illustration for “Le Mystère des pierreries” / “The Mystery of Jewelry” by Albert Flament in L’Illustration (1926)

This image sees two identical female figures kneeling, facing each other and embracing so that they seem to form one body.

The flowing fabric sarongs that they wear spread out around them, the circle of a bracelet imprisoning them in their desire.

Sappho and Erinna in the Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon (1864)

As Sappho began to inspire visual artists, Simeon Solomon depicted the poet and one of her disciples as explicitly lesbian, but did so tastefully, without overstepping the boundaries of conventional morality.

His Sappho and Erinna in the Garden at Mytilene shows Sappho embracing a young Greek woman in an idyllic setting.

L’Embarquement pour Lesbos / The Departure for Lesbos by Armand Vallée in Fantasio (1929)

The two women in this drawing by Armand Vallée are, as the title suggests, heading to Lesbos, or voyaging “to a different land / Where love, they say, is more beautiful”.

Madame est au Cercle! / Madam Is at Her Club! by Albert Guillaume as published in Parisian literary periodical Gil Blas illustré (1892)

“…in which there are women sitting around a poker table, playing cards, drinking, and smoking”.

Looks like heaven.

Ferdinand Bac, illustration for “Lucie-Berthe” by Joséphin Péladan (1885)

Ferdinand Bac, the illustrator of Femmes honnêtes! / Decent Women!, daringly drew the two lovers Lucie and Berthe embracing.

This meant that their arms formed a bridge of flesh in the form of a hyphen, like the punctuation mark that joined their names.

Petites Amies / Girlfriends by Hanafusa Ittcho, an illustration for the novel Poupée Japonaise / Japanese Doll by Félicien Champsaur (1912)

The term inseparables (also a French term for lovebirds) is the title of a chapter in Champsaur’s Poupée Japonaise / Japanese Doll (1900).

In the illustrated edition of 1912, a coloured engraving by Hanafusa Ittcho called Petites Amies / Girlfriends represents two lovers’ hands joined like the obis fastening their kimonos, giving the impression that the women are literally tied together.

Sapho by Gustav-Adolf Mossa (1907)

French painter Gustav-Adolf Mossa depicted Greek poet Sappho with a bare and bejewelled body like a courtesan in this 1907 watercolour.

She’s playing the zither while in the background naked women embrace passionately.

Gabriel de Laumont, Don Juan moderne, in Gil Blas illustré (1898)

A woman in traditionally male clothes is courted by many women in this Gabriel de Laumont illustration.

Sexes autonomes: Les bars parallèles, Rétablissement / Autonomous Sexes: Parallel Bars, Restoration by Gerda Wegener in Fantasio (1925)

Édouard Chimot, fascinated by this working-class and artistic neighborhood in Paris, sketched some of these female couples, many of whom were actually poor women working as prostitutes.

Jean-Louis Forain and Toulouse-Lautrec captured the habitués, both famous and anonymous, of the cafés that they also frequented.

In the 1920s the glamorous Gerda Wegener gave these local dives a more sophisticated allure and called them Bars parallèles / Parallel Bars, suggesting a pun with “barres parallèles” and “parallel bars” in gymnastics.

The cover of a special issue devoted to lesbians: Jils Garrine, Les Mesdam’messieurs, in L’Assiette au beurre (1912)

Writers at the time tried to define cross-dressing by using compound nouns and convoluted phrases like “Woman-Man”, “woman masculinised by habit and tastes” or “mesdam’messieurs”.

That was the title of this special issue of satirical magazine L’Assiette au beurre, devoted entirely to lesbians.

Lesbian Decadence is available on Amazon UK.

Related topics: art, books, entertainment, Europe, France, France, lesbian, lesbians, sapphic, Sappho

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