The Validity of Queer Interpretation in Art

As queer artists began to be more open and prominent in the artistic society, queer readings of their art were often completely passed over or denied in favor of a more acceptable, often ‘straight’ or heterosexual interpretation of their work. Even though historians and critics will argue that modern day terminology and LGBT+ identifiers cannot be used to in conjunction with people that did not use or subscribe to current terminology, this is a tactic of redirection and denial of valid identities. Linguistics, languages and ideals change with fluctuating cultures, humanity and power structures but the core underlying relationships, desires and actions do not. Although we must be aware of the divide of time and changes in history like we do in regards to other aspects of art criticism (gender roles, subject matter, mediums, cultures) it does not negate the inherent queerness of some works and that a queer interpretation is valid and informative for any kind of artwork presented.


Current queer interpretations of historical artwork are often tied with the artist’s biography in a way to prove or disprove their supposed sexuality or less often, gender identity. Throughout history, the norm was represented by people who fit into the roles of rich, able-bodied, white, Western heterosexual males. Anything else was an aspect of ‘otherness’, an aspect that can easily be seen how they were treated in art. Peasants and the lower classes, women, disabled people and ‘exotic’ or colonialized races being painted and represented for consumption by ‘normal’ folks.


Interestingly, the queer ‘other’ was one subject that had to be constantly suppressed and hidden, that even the smallest hint of queerness in an artwork would be taken down, hidden or destroyed; these were windows into a world opposite of the entrenched social, cultural and moral order. Because of this, most people would not outright claim their sexuality for people to know or openly share their romantic and sexual inclinations if those desires will be punished (and many people do not feel the need to anyway if its accepted as normal). As a result, there isn’t much cut-and-dry ‘proof’ of queerness for most people to quit debating any and all plausibility towards an absolute need of having both the artist and their art seen through a straight-cis only lens, if such proof managed to survive being destroyed by friends, relatives, and the public.


Once one is on the look-out for it, it is extremely easy to see how queer reading is left completely out of the picture or if it is attempted, is often argued in the favor of a straight viewpoint, often to the point of logical bafflement. One such ongoing debate is the sexuality of Sappho, a poet whose surviving works are utterly about her love of women to the point that our modern identifier for women who love women is borne from her island’s name, Lesbos. Yet many male professors, translators and scholars will pick apart and interpret her exclusivity of towards women in every way that cannot be queer, from being a mentor to women to prepare them for marriage, to her love for women being the picture of pure friendship, to her being an ugly scorned woman that cannot get a man to love her.[1] Though it seems pretty telling to someone who is LGBT+ that Sappho’s dedication of poetry just to women is decidedly ‘not-straight’, because it is not considered ‘normal’ most people feel a need to push the interpretation to the more socially acceptable roles a woman can be as a poet.

Simeon Solomon, “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene,” 1864, Watercolor on Paper, 330mm x 381mm. London, Tate.

This round-about chasing can be seen again in Simeon Solomon’s watercolor, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene.[2] First, certain context is needed to understand why a painting of two women in a kissing embrace is acceptable to view and illustrate, yet exchanging both of the figures out for males would not be. Two forces are at play for this; one is that in the early 19th century, anything related to ancient Greek or Roman mythology and history, or the Bible was considered ‘historical art’, the most superior subject matter an artist can paint. This gave leeway for portraying nudity and in this case, female affections for one another. The second, which ties to the latter, is that female sexuality did not ‘exist’. Men had sexual appetites and preferences; women did not. This shaped the way women were seen as passive players and someone to be wooed, controlled and lead, as objects of want and desire (which also allowed the implicit acceptance of mistresses, prostitutes and rape to satisfy a man’s needs his wife could not), and that any sort of desire outside that for a man or completely excluding men on the woman’s end is seen as naïve, broken, mislead, or delusional.


In Soloman’s painting, we see Sappho in Erinna’s garden at Mytilene, the poet embracing a distraught Erinna while she receives a chaste kiss on the cheek. Tender feminine symbols surround the scene, flowers skewed upon the ground, birds in the garden and a little pet deer, dainty and fragile. The scene garners us further in, as Sappho’s expression is pained and an attitude of protectiveness exists about her in the furrowed brow and strong grasp of Erinna’s shoulders that pull her into Sappho’s body. Erinna however, looks a mix of inviting and pulling away, her head angled away from Sappho even as her hand covers hers. Those familiar with the two Greek poets can interpret this intimate scene as a goodbye from Sappho to Erinna before she returns home to Lesbos or of Erinna being comforted by the loss of her friend, Baucis.


Yet if we consider both Soloman’s and Sappho’s identities as queer, the scene becomes more complex. There is now another layer to this tale, as Sappho’s embrace with its forward press and clutching embrace feels like that of an impassioned lover, hoping to console her friend, or perhaps even seen as a bold advance that vacillates between welcomed and hesitating. There is even a set of doves above the pair’s heads. However, the interpretation delves even deeper if we move beyond the actual illustration and story depicted on paper to consider Soloman himself, and his choice of this particular subject, scene, and way of depicting it. Immediately, we are drawn in by the pair, not only for their different reactions to each other, but also that though they are both women, only Erinna holds the typical standard of female beauty: pale, soft and feminine. In turn, Sappho is almost masculine, both in her body language and features: the tanned skin, the strong jaw, the dark, heavy brows. During his life, Soloman was a closeted homosexual and later on would be arrested for attempting male relations and “’indecent touching’ in a lavatory”.[3] With this knowledge, it almost feels like Sappho is a stand-in for Soloman’s own feelings for the same-sex, of that desperate desire in her needy, grasping embrace while the woman of her affections seems unsure of how to feel and react in return.

Jacques-Louis David, “Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid,’’ 1809. Oil on Canvas, 70 x 62 cm. St. Petersburg, The Hermitage.

Compare this with a painting by the neoclassical master, Jacques-Louis David, Sappho, Phaon and Cupid.[4] Here, Sappho the typical gentle portrayal of a woman and submissive to her boatman, Phaon. His hand literally holding her face in such a way to pull her away from her instrument of poetry, while he stands over her with both a spear and bow, tools of the hunt. While his gaze is arresting, strong and with no hint of affection in his sort-of smile, Sappho looks dazed, almost drugged as if a side-effect by Cupid’s bow. Add to that the symbolic representations of love with Cupid, the double-bed and the pairing of the doves and trees, and it’s a perfect heterosexual couple being illustrated. It’s also interesting to note that although Sappho’s affection for women is written by her in her own poetry so it is as factual as fact can be, the story of her and a relationship with Phaon is mythology, invented in the later works of Ovid and Lucian.


Although art that sparks the debate of sexuality due to its nature depicting questionable nudity, affection or actions is usually the more common type on which queer interpretations form, queer interpretations should not just be limited to art with these sexual undercurrents. There is always an immediate association of queer with the sexual, whether overtly or subtly, an association that is not affixed to heterosexuality despite it being the polar opposite of homosexuality. Much of that association stems from the idea of queerness as a perverse identity, something to avoid, an illness to be rid of both inside of someone and outside in society. Because the whole nature of homosexuality stems on being different in terms of romantic and sexual attraction, it is an easy association that still endures to this day: if heterosexuality is good and correct, homosexuality is bad and wrong, which by that very definition negates and invalidates the idea that queer people have innocent childhood crushes, gentle loving romances and loyal relationships. One has to cast aside this ingrained bias to view works of art through a queer lens, so that one is not only seeking out and gravitating towards art with sexual symbols or imagery with queerness in mind and ignoring those that do not.

John Singer Sargent, “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1884. Oil on Canvas, 95.74 x 56.61 in. New York, MET.

In John Singer Sargent’s controversial masterpiece, Madame X,[5] he paints the young Madame Gautreau in a slick, revealing evening dress with ample skin on display, a haughty uplift to her chin and a disinterested gaze on the proud socialite’s profile, completely at odds the classy portraits of the elite in all their wealth, finery and manners. This was a woman he sought out to paint rather than the sitters seeking him out for patronage; for him, this was his best painting and it would propel him to the highest tier of European portrait painters.[6] However, this painting drew outrage from every person who saw it: from Gautreau’s mother to the gallery patrons to one critic who noticed the portrait didn’t even look like the woman it was titled after.[7]


One might attribute the outrage of this scandalous portrait on a variety of factors, all of which hold true. Where the audience of the day wanted subdued, almost royal portraits that were artifices for others to see and acknowledge as the sitter’s best representation, Sargent with Madame X aired all of Madame Gautreau’s dirtiest laundry and brazen personality; this was a woman who though young, already carried with her the news of affairs and gossip to go along with her exotic looks.[8] He reinforces that part of her in all manner possible from the thin spaghetti straps that barely hold up the dress over her small breasts, to her revealing tilt that shows off her bare neck, all of which is held at a breath’s notice by her firm, almost masculine lean on the table and the unladylike grip on her dress below the crotch. Avant-garde or bold experimentation was not expected or sought after in portraits; that was the realm of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists only, with their broken dabs of paint and playful dazzling use of light on safe, innocuous subjects like haystacks, picnics and water lilies.


Though this piece formally capped the progression of Sargent’s career until his death, he did not stop painting and drawing: mostly his standard of children and elevated society women, but also famous men such as Teddy Roosevelt, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Louis Stevenson. However, an intriguing dichotomy reveals itself when one views his few paintings and many drawings of men with that of his paintings of women. When Sargent paints women, there is a strange sense of vacancy in the subject matter, almost like that of a master doing an exercise or commission for the purpose of getting it done and to a formulaic standard. In the case of his women, it’s understandable that he would want this sense of aloofness and separation between artist and sitter, of painting her at her best yet not knowing her. Capozzola writes that many people saw him as ‘a pretty-picture-making machine’, an artist without heart and soul in his work.[9]


However, this accusation completely unravels when one is in the presence of his paintings and drawings of men, of these individuals that don’t sit pretty with blank, camera-ready stares. They move around the canvas with a sheepish smile, sunbathe upon rocks in his watercolors, stare you down deep within your bones, or look off in the distance while surrounded by their messy office. It is in these men that Sargent springs to life and gives life, bestowing personality and love with his masterful skill to what could be just another bland yet well executed portrait if he wanted. What makes this break between his variation between how he painted the sexes is that Madame X is the sole woman that got the same sort of vibrancy, personality and almost sensual nature that his men did. Although this can be contributed to the fact that this was the painting to make or break the advancement in his career, there are interesting peculiars that shed a deeper light into exactly what Sargent poured into his infamous painting.


Many people upon seeing Madame X remarked her masculine attributes: her strong jutting jaw, the taut muscles in her arm and as well as her faint, undefined breasts. This did not look like the Madame Gautreau at all and can be attributed to the artist not being able to paint the likeness of his patron. This is quite odd thought though, given that even at a young age Sargent was lauded for his uncanny ability to capture someone’s likeness; his previous portraits and those after are testament to this. However, these observations labor under the idea that what we are presented has to be a woman.


Sargent’s life was intensely private, yet what we understand of him is that he lived all his life as a bachelor, many of his closest friends were queer such as Henry James and George Henschel, and that his most private and deeply personal sketches and artwork he did were of men.[10] Some of these were even sexually explicit, and he did not have any sketches or personal art related to women. Not only that, he had deep personal relationships with men, one of which was fellow artist, Albert de Belleroche, of whom he owned several sketches of and whose portrait remained in his possession until his death.[11] When one lets go of the idea that Madame X must be what and who it claims to be, some striking observations can be seen between this painting and the sketches Sargent did of Belleroche.[12]

John Singer Sargent, ‘’Albert de Belleroche,’’ 1883. Oil on Canvas, 25 x 16 1/2 in. New York, MET.

Once thought of having to be that of Gautreau due to direct similarities between the sketches and the painting, when the idea that Sargent’s painting had to depict a woman from a woman was removed, Madame X takes on a queer reading. The likeness of her to his Belleroche is uncanny, that the readings of masculinity and claims of imperfection now make sense under the lens of queerness: that Sargent had painted the likeness of Belleroche with the jeweled strapped dress and exposed throat. The circumstance of the sketches being produced alongside the portrait being painted further bolsters this queer context as well as his romantic friendship with the man.[13] Nothing in Madame X is inherently sexual, save the societal views at the time that equate that kind of dress and demeanor of being ‘a loose woman’; yet the play of masculinity and femininity in Madame X as well the suggested context that this could be a cross-dressing man gives the work a substantial base in queer identity.

John Singer Sargent, ‘’Albert de Belleroche-Sketch,’’ 1883. Ink Wash.

Queer interpretation and reading in artwork is not only an essential way to understand a part of the artist’s identity that even now is often neglected or dismissed, but a valid way to also view works of art that may not be inherently or overtly queer at all. Much like other lens of criticism such as feminist, Marxist or colonial insights, it is a way to critically question, observe and find meaning in artistic works. To only engage in queer interpretation as a way of validating or invalidating the artist’s own sexuality or if the subject is already there devalues the queer point-of-view. Instead it turns what should be a rich conversation on LGBT+ topics, perspective, and engagement both on a personal and cultural level down to one insulting use: as a means of proving or disapproving if someone is gay or not.

 

Bibliography


Capozzola, Christopher. “Review: The Man Who Illuminated the Gilded Age?” American Quarterly 52, no. 3 (September 2000): 514-532. Accessed January 26, 2019. www.jstor.ord/stable/30041859


David, Jacques-Louis. Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid, 1809. Oil on Canvas, 70 x 62 cm. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Accessed March 1, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaon#/media/File:Sapho,_Phaon_et_l%27Amour.PNG


Diliberto, Gioia. “Sargent’s Muses: Was Madame X Actually a Mister?” The New York Times. Last Modified May 18, 2003. https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/18/arts/art-architecture-sargent-s-muses-was-madame-x-actually-a-mister.html


Haselswerdt, Ella. “Re-Queering Sappho.” Eidolon, August 8, 2016. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://eidolon.pub/re-queering-sappho-c6c05b6b9f0b


O’Neill, Lauren. “This is What Queer Art Looked Like When ‘Homosexual’ Meant ‘Criminal’.” VICE, April 04, 2017. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/z49k8x/this-is-what-queer-art-looked-like-when-homosexual-meant-criminal


Sargent, John Singer. Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884. Oil on Canvas, 95.74 x 56.61 in. New York, MET. Accessed February 9, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg


Sargent, John Singer. Albert de Belleroche. 1883. Oil on Canvas, 25 x 16 1/2 in. New York, MET. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/21382


Sargent, John Singer. Albert de Belleroche-Sketch. 1883. Ink Wash. Accessed March 7, 2019. https://66.media.tumblr.com/a20fce22745ca3f031049667da4b1db8/tumblr_o7ot0dkcyq1skmb0bo1_1280.jpg


Solomon, Simeon. Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864. Watercolor on Paper, 330mm x 381mm. London, Tate. Accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/solomon-sappho-and-erinna-in-a-garden-at-mytilene-t03063


Toibin, Colm. “The Secret Life of John Singer Sargent.” The Telegraph, February 15, 2015. Accessed February 28, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/artists/the-secret-life-of-john-singer-sargent/

 

[1] Ella Haselswerdt, “Re-Queering Sappho”, (Eidolon, August 8, 2016.)


[2] Simeon Soloman, “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene,” London, Tate, accessed February 24, 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/solomon-sappho-and-erinna-in-a-garden-at-mytilene-t03063


[3] Lauren O’Nell, “This is What Queer Art Looked Like When ‘Homosexual’ Meant ‘Criminal’,” (VICE, April 04, 2017.)


[4] Jacques-Louis David, “Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid,’’ St. Petersburg ,The Hermitage, accessed March 1, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaon#/media/File:Sapho,_Phaon_et_l%27Amour.PNG


[5] John Singer Sargent, “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” New York, Met, accessed February 9, 2019.


[6] Christopher Capozzola, “Review: The Man Who Illuminated the Gilded Age?” American Quarterly 52, no. 3, p. 524.


[7] Gioia Diliberto, “Sargent’s Muses: Was Madame X Actually a Mister?” The New York Times, May 18, 2003.


[8] Diliberto.


[9] Capozzola, p. 518.


[10] Colm Toibin, “The Secret Life of John Singer Sargent,” The Telegraph, February 15, 2015.


[11] John Singer Sargent, ‘’Albert de Belleroche,’’ New York, The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/21382


[12] John Singer Sargent, “Albert de Belleroche,’’ https://66.media.tumblr.com/a20fce22745ca3f031049667da4b1db8/tumblr_o7ot0dkcyq1skmb0bo1_1280.jpg


[13] Diliberto.

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