Artistic vision is having the clarity to fall in love with what you see. - Chogyam Trungpa
This post represents a travel through time to see a sampling of artistic works whose subject is primarily the connection of women with other women. Along the way we'll see different kinds of relationships and bonds that women have with each other which artists and society in general have decided has value and is worth celebrating.
Let's travel back in time to 1482 when the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli painted Primavera (the Allegory of Spring) for a member of the Medici family. This beautiful masterpiece would have taken Botticelli, a very skilled artist, many weeks or months to complete and would have been impossible to complete without the financial support of a wealthy family and/or institution. That kind of sponsorship usually led to the work of art being held privately.
The Three Graces from Primvera - Sandro Botticelli (c.1482)
In the left part of the painting we see the Three Graces, Chastity, Beauty, & Love, in an intimate dance with their fingers intertwined and their eyes gazing upon each other. The mythology of the Graces date back to ancient Greece where they are seen as minor goddesses and daughters of Zeus and Eurynome. They are often depicted nude although in Primavera Botticelli chose to clothe them in sensual, diaphanous gowns.
Venus, Flora, Mars and Cupid (Allegory) - Paris Bardone (1570)
In the above painting by Bardone we see the two mythological characters Venus (Goddess of love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility) sitting intimately with Flora (Goddess of flowers and spring). Interestingly, both Venus and Flora are depicted in Primavera although separately. It is fairly common in art history to see two, or more, women displayed in an intimate manner to symbolize unity or a synergy between their supernatural domains. An additional explanation is that the male artists who created these works were providing what they and/or their patrons desired to see - women being intimate with other women for their own visceral enjoyment, and used mythology to justify the intimacy.
Allegory of the Union of Painting and Poetry - Francesco Furini (1626)
Furini's allegorical figures are more erotic than Bardone's. There is more exposed skin, including a breast and the two women are positioned to begin kissing. "Poetry" is making eye contact with us, the viewer, and she seems to be confirming our erotic suspicions with a coy smile.
Allegory of Water and Earth - Jan Breughel II and Frans Francken II (c. 1620-1640)
Here we see the intimacy of two women as being allegorical to the synergy of water and earth and the bounty of life and growth that the combination provides.
Jupiter Disguised as Diana Seducing the Nymph Callisto - Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem (1620-1683)
The story of Jupiter taking the appearance of Diana to seduce the nymph Callisto comes from the epic narrative poem Metamorphses written by Ovid in the year 8 AD. There are many paintings which depict scenes from the story and some focus on the eroticism of apparent lesbianism, such as in the above painting by Berchem.
Nymphs by a Fountain - Peter Lely (c.1650)
Nymphs are divine spirits from ancient Greek and Latin mythology who animate nature and are usually depicted as young nubile women, often nude, who love to sing and dance and cavort with each other and their deity, with is often Diana or Venus. They are often shown to be residents of woods but sometimes are depicted as sea nymphs. In Lely's painting we see our nymphs worn out after a long hard day of frolicking and are sleeping together in a communal cuddle, which strongly suggests lesbian cavorting.
Diana and Her Companions - Johannes Vermeer (c. 1650s)
Diana is having her feet washed by one of her nymphs which is reminiscent of a biblical scene. The atmosphere here is one of humility, service and reverence and is quite different from most Diana-nymph paintings which are usually have a degree of eroticism.
Justice and Peace Embracing - Antonio Balestra (ca. 1700)
Here is another symbolic painting showing two women being intimate to represent the unity of justice with peace. Although they are fully clothed the women are clearly expressing sexual intentions as they lean towards each other to kiss while cupid shows his appreciation for their desire.
Diana and Callisto - Pietro Liberi (1670)
This painting based on Metamorphses shows Diana after the seduction of Callisto by Jupiter (appearing as Diana). Although this scene is one of discovery and consolation, is bursting with sexuality and the eroticism of implied lesbianism as we see Diana and her nymphs fully naked and in intimate connections with each other. This kind of depiction of women as soft,voluptuous and sensual creatures by men, for the viewing pleasure of other men will be repeated often in many subsequent paintings spanning over 200 years.
Study for 'Justice, Peace, and Truth' - Giovanni Battista Gaulli (Baciccio) (c. 1666-1672)
This symbolic union features a soft kiss between Justice and Peace while adding an element of voyeurism as Truth looks on as cherubs/cupids place a crown on the head of the head of Justice.
La Toilette - François Boucher (1742)
Boucher was a prolific and prominent painter for the French aristocracy during the 18th century who enjoyed his decorative Rococo style which often included an atmosphere of eroticism. In this painting he has added a degree of implied lesbianism in a contemporary setting. Are the women flirting, or perhaps getting dressed after a time of shared passion?
Two Nymphs of Diana resting after their Return from the Hunt - François Boucher (1748)
Here Boucher depicts a mythological setting without the context of a typical narrative. It is illustrative of the lifestyle we can assume the nymphs had, namely intimate, romantic and erotic relationships with each other.
The Union of Painting and Sculpture - Jean Louis Lagrenee (1768)
This symbolic union of the Fine Visual Arts is especially erotic with a half naked embrace witnessed by an approving Cupid.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Servant Girls' Dormitory, c. 1770
Fragonard was another prominent Rococo artist who also specialized in erotic themes. In this drawing he provides his viewers with a special and privileged access to a private, but plausible scene unavailable to men. It's a pure voyeuristic fantasy where men can imagine the pleasure of the young women as they explore their romantic and erotic urges for each other. A feminist analysis of this work would conclude that these women are passive sex objects created by a man for the enjoyment of men and it's primary message to women is one of male dominance over women, even in imaginary scenes which only involve women.
Diana and her Nymphs Bathing - Angelica Kauffman (c.1778-82)
Kauffman was a successful artist in London and Rome who specialized in historical works, and was one of a growing number of women who were able to achieve success in the male dominated arts industry. Her treatment of a classical mythology scene that usually features implied lesbianism is arguably more romantic than erotic.
La Bonne Nouvelle (The Good News) - Marguerite Gérard (c. 1804)
Gérard would become a sister-in-law of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and under his tutelage would become a successful artist specializing in scenes of domestic life including memorable moments of motherhood and childhood. Many early women artists focused on these daily life or genre scenes as they were denied access to art schools and the training required to paint ambitious and prestigious historical themes. In the above painting we see the close relationship between relatives, perhaps sisters or cousins as they share the contents of a letter.
The Greek Poet Sappho and the Girl from Mytilene' - Nicolai Abildgaard (1809)
Abildgaard, in this painting depicts lesbianism between Sappho, a known historical figure and one of her disciples. Eroticism of this nature was most likely privately commissioned for male enjoyment.
Helena and Hermia - Washington Allston (ca. 1810)
This painting depicts a scene between characters from William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Helena and Hermia are close friends and there is some ambiguity about the nature of their relationship which to some appears homoerotic. At the very least they appear to be "romantic" friends in Allston's painting.
The Lovers - Jules-Robert Auguste (c. 1820)
This scene of explicit lesbianism takes place in a vague outdoor location on top of a luxurious pile of fabrics. The interracial couple implies that this might be a scene associated with a harem which adds an extra exotic twist to the voyeuristic fantasy. Paintings depicting harems and the women who inhabited them are quite common in the 19th century. Often the women in harems are arranged in poses which imply lesbianism but usually not as obviously as in the August work above.
Moonrise over the Sea - Caspar David Friedrich (1822)
We share a beautiful outdoors view with three people sitting on the rock. The closeness of the women compared to the man seated behind them signifies their close emotional connection. We, the viewer, can imagine ourselves in their place, seeing the beauty of nature while sitting close to a loved one. Alternately we can see the women's relationship as a part of or the focal point in the scene of natural beauty. The exact nature of their connection - sister, friend or perhaps lover doesn't really matter.
Germania and Italia - Friedrich Overbeck (1811-28)
This symbolic union between Italia (the "south", on the left) and Germania (the "north") represents the two major areas of European civilization and their unique characteristics and approaches towards art. Here we can see the need, the desire, the craving of Germania to be more like Italia, to become more expressive, emotional and passionate. In symbolic union paintings like these there is a recognition or belief, beyond the implied lesbianism, that the connection between women can be profound, synergistic and durable.
Boarding School Friends - attributed to "French School" (1837)
This painting brings to life the passion of two women for each other. The plausible setting, the lack of nudity and the sensuality expressed by their hands and posture makes this scene crackle with eroticism. This was drawn for the pleasure of men, but one can imagine the effect it might have had on women, and perhaps the artist(s) did.
Der Liebesbrief (The Love Letter) - Ferdinand Georg Waldmueller (1845)
The glow of the lamp reveals the glow in their hearts as they share the most intimate details written in a letter of love. The fingers on her shoulder and the warmth in her eyes reveal that the connection (love) between the women is immediate, real and profound.
Bathers - Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans (1816-1889)
There is a subtle distinction between "nymphs" and "bathers" with the latter being more plausible and perhaps easier to fantasize. These two young women are enjoying sharing their beauty and feelings of sexuality, perhaps for the first time, with each other. The blond woman fills the scene inviting viewers to visually caress her body up and down and when we pause at her face we can empathize with her emotional state and follow her eyes to the sitting woman whose emotions we can only infer. Her pose is reminiscent of Venus or Aphrodite and perhaps she is feeling like a Goddess of Love as she holds the gaze of her companion.
La Chute du Chat (Two Women Disturbed by a Cat) - Jean-Alphonse Roehn (1800s)
The artistic movement of Realism, whose aim was to depict contemporary life, as-it-was, was growing in the mid 19th century. This painting clearly reflects realism - the room looks messy and worn and the two women are clearly of modest means. The fact that they are show together in bed strongly implies lesbianism but in the most mundane, everyday kind of way, which delivers the shocking message that women can be lovers in everyday, real life. This painting is not so much erotic voyeuristic fantasy as it is a revelation of social reality.
Anna Henriette Stelzner with her friend Frau von Braunschweig, 1849
The Realism movement in art started to gain traction at roughly the same time as photography was becoming technologically and commercially viable in the middle of the 19th century. The current state of photography made it most suitable for capturing highly detailed portraits in a fraction of the time and effort required to produce a portrait painting. Here we see two young women portrayed intimately suggesting a possible romantic friendship (or more?). This photograph was taken by Anna's husband Carl Ferdinand Stelzner who was an early pioneer of photography.
The Tepidarium - Theodore Chasseriau (1853)
A tepidarium was a heated room where bathers could relax and dry off after bathing in another chamber. The atmosphere here is indeed hot and highly erotic for a number of reasons. Our attention is first drawn to the half naked woman dancing sensually for the seated woman whose seems to be frozen in appreciation. Their eyes are locked together suggesting mutual arousal and pleasure. As we look around the room we can see other women are enjoying the performance while others are looking away to exchange furtive, suggestive glances. One woman appears to be looking directly at us, the viewer, inviting us (women) to participate in the erotic spectacle of women being aroused by other women. This painting was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1853 and although mostly intended for male viewing it is very likely that it was seen, and meant to be seen by women.
Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas - Camille Pissarro (1856)
Here we see two African-Caribbean women stopping to chat on a sandy pathway. They are bathed in warm sunlight and a soft sea breeze which adds to the pleasure of their friendly encounter. They are ordinary working women but posses dignity and self-respect which is worthy of our admiration.
The Reapers - Jules Breton (c.1860)
These peasant women are also admirable as they walk home together after a long day of hard work in the fields. We can see that they care for, and support one another which suggests strong affectionate bonds and a high degree of group unity and cohesion. This unity, and the affectionate bonds which support it is an invisible, but real beauty that is revealed by their actions towards each other. A viewer who empathizes with them becomes, in a sense, part of their supportive group.
Nymphs Bathing - Arnold Böcklin (1863-6)
Böcklin was a Symbolist painter, a movement which strove to represent absolute truths in an indirect manner. Here we see two naked women bathing together in small stream shaded by a few trees. The golden wheat fields surrounding them gives their bathing place the aura of an rejuvenating , restorative oasis surrounded by desert. The standing woman's arms are spread wide open as an invitation for a loving embrace to the kneeling woman perhaps suggesting that loving intimacy between women is a kind of emotional oasis in a harsh patriarchal world.
Le Sommeil (The Sleepers) - Gustave Courbet (1866)
Courbet was a leading member of the Realism movement and was a prestigious painter when he was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat to paint this explicit scene of lesbians sensually coiled together after making love. On the bed is a broken pearl necklace which is evidence of their intense romantic struggle. The theme of lesbianism was a popular one in contemporary erotica, and it was a recognized social phenomena but was associated with prostitution and didn't enjoy public moral approval. The public reaction to this painting, which was devoid of any ambiguity or delicacy, was one of shock and it was forbidden to be shown publicly until 1988. Within the art world it was well known and influenced the work of subsequent artists.
Devant Courbet - Thomas Levy-Lanse (2011)
The public reaction to Le Sommeil today remains mixed. Seen through a feminist lens it is a work of male imagination which objectifies women and fetishizes lesbianism for a male audience. Others see it as an important and realistic portrayal of lesbians which has had a positive influence on the public acceptance of lesbians and LGBTQ rights. The above painting shows a guide telling a group of women about the painting as they are viewing it which raises questions about how these women are experiencing the painting. Are they seeing it through modern cultural lenses? How does it make them feel? Would women of the 19th century feel differently about it than than women of today?
To Be Continued.......This ends the first part of this trip through art-time.