Lesbian Love and Sex in Art History

Marija Canjuga 30 June 2020 min Read

Lesbian love and sex is an often hidden part of humanity. Furthermore, it seems like it was always so. However, there are few examples from the earliest times of history which show it is a part of human nature.

Lesbian Love in the Classical Period

Throughout most of history and in many cultures women were second-class citizens. Therefore, the biggest problem with the early depictions of lesbianism is that it was men who made it. As a result, we don't really know what the women were feeling and experiencing.

Apollodoros, A ceramic vessel (c. 515 – 495 B.C.E.)
Apollodoros, A ceramic vessel, c. 515 – 495 BCE. Source: “Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas”.

However, we can get an idea of how lesbianism was viewed by society. One of the oldest examples of the depiction of lesbian erotic is the ancient Greek ceramic vessel you can see above.

Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene
Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864, Tate Britain, London, UK.

Also, Sappho lived in this period. Sappho was an Archaic Greek poetess from the island of Lesbos (from there the term lesbianism comes). Historians still discuss her sexuality. Still, according to her works, she was familiar with same-sex relationships. This is why later in history she was a huge inspiration for depicting lesbian love and sex.

Lesbian couple from a series of erotic paintings at the Suburban Baths, Pompeii
Female couple from a series of erotic paintings at the Suburban Baths, Pompeii, Italy. Wikipedia.

In the Roman Empire, paiderastia and lesbianism were not at the same level of acceptance. Obviously, it was because of the strictly defined gender roles. On the other hand, the Bible condemned strongly both male and female same-sex relationships from the earliest days.

On the Other Side of the World

The cultural view on lesbian love and sex may be much different on the other side of the world. There are many lyrical and beautiful depictions of lesbianism to be found in old books.

Unknown artist, Lesbian Allegory, 17th century, Persia.
Unknown artist, Lesbian Allegory, 17th century, Persia. How to Talk About Art History.

Here we have an illustration from a 17th-century Persian translation of an Indian sex manual. The meaning is not literal, it's a metaphor for a female same-sex position using a dildo.

Chokyosai Eiri, Lesbian lovers
Chokyosai Eiri, Lesbian lovers, Fumi no Kiyogaki (Models of Calligraphy) series, 1801. How to Talk About Art History.

Additionally, lesbian sex was a popular theme for Japanese shunga. For example, up above is a depiction of two women getting ready to have sex using a strap-on dildo. One of them is also holding a container with some kind of cream inside, probably some sort of lubricant.

Katsushika Hokusai, Two Women Having Sex with one of Them Wearing a harigata
Katsushika Hokusai, Two Women Having Sex with One of them Wearing a Harigata, Kinoe no komatsu (Young Pine Saplings) series, 1814. How to Talk About Art History.

Here is one more beautiful example of shunga art. Katsushika Hokusai, the man behind The Great Wave off Kanagawa, made it. It shows a lesbian couple engaging in intercourse using a double-ended harigata (dildo).

Early Modern Period

The Middle Age and Renaissance didn't have any relevant works. However, from the 18th century, lesbian love became more culturally visible. Many artists, mainly male, depicted female lesbian relations and in this way expressed their opinion on lesbianism.

Gustave Courbet, Le Sommeil (The Sleepers)
Gustave Courbet, The Sleepers, 1866, Petit Palais, Paris, France.

I will start with a masterpiece by Gustave Courbet. Courbet was famous for rejecting social norms and traditional views. He liked to show the bare truth, even if it would cause criticism. For example, one of his most controversial works is the one above, The Sleepers. It even was not allowed to be exhibited publicly until 1988.

Auguste Rodin, Damned Women
Auguste Rodin, Damned Women, 1885-90, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City, Mexico.

Opposite to Coubert, who openly and uncensoredly spoke up about lesbianism, was Auguste Rodin. Rodin created many artworks on the theme of lesbianism, which in his times was considered a mental disorder. The purpose of his works was to shock in order to highlight the dangerous nature of lesbian affection. For example, this work above was never exhibited during the artist's lifetime due to its “blatant homoeroticism”.

Franz von Bayros, The Serenade (But Later We Will Play Something More Innocent)La Grenouillere series, 1907. Wikimedia Commons.

Before the world had Playboy, there were Marquis Franz von Bayros illustrations. He was an Austrian commercial artist, illustrator, and painter. His focus was erotic art. He produced illustrations for the Decadence Movement, following the style of Aubrey Beardsley. This print above comes from a portfolio of 15 drawings created in 1907.

Franz von Bayros, Sappho
Édouard-Henri Avril, Sappho, late 19th century/early 20th century. How to Talk About Art History.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a lot of lesbian art was inspired by mythology. Here is an example where the artist was inspired by the story of Sappho.

Lesbian Love in the Modern Period

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, The Two Friends
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Two Friends, 1895, Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection, Zurich, Switzerland.

Here we come to the chronicler of Paris social life, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He used to spend a lot of time in brothels, sometimes he even lived in them. It was while painting his friends, prostitutes in brothels, that he witnessed lesbianism first hand. The women he painted were often having romantic and sexual relationships with each other. Consequently, his works sometimes show a strong emotional bond between lovers.

Gustav Klimt, The Women Friends
Gustav Klimt, The Women Friends, 1917, destroyed. Wikimedia Commons.

Some intellectuals thought that erotic art could be a socio-political tool and a culturally progressive force. Therefore, Klimt contributed a lot to the emancipation of women with his work. The painting above shows a lesbian couple with a less erotic passion than tender affection. They look real, happy together, with no feeling of an "unnatural" homosexual union.

Egon Schiele, Two Women Embracing
Egon Schiele, Two Women Embracing, 1915, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

Another artist who spoke openly about sexuality in his works is Klimt's student, Egon Schiele. He had a unique way of shaping the human body. That is to say, in many works, he shows passion, attraction, and longing between two female bodies. Therefore, at the time, many found his work explicit and disturbing.

Gerda Wegener, Illustration for Les Délassements de l’Éros (1925)
Gerda Wegener, Illustration from Les Délassements de l’Éros, 1925. Honest Erotica.

And for the end, a piece made by Gerda Wegener. Wegener was a Danish fashion illustrator and painter of lesbian erotica in the 1930s. She also created probably the only same-sex female erotica that was actually made by a woman, an illustration for the 1925 poetry book Les Délassements de l’Éros.

Lesbian Love and Sex in Art Today

Today we finally have female artists speaking about lesbian relationships in all possible ways. The purpose is mainly to challenge the status quo of the LGBT+ community and demystify female lesbian sexuality. For example, some of the more famous names are Claude Cahun, Jill Posener, Laura Aguilar, Tee Corinne, G. B. Jones, Della Grace Volcano, and Zanele Muholi.

Zanele Muholi, LiTer II, 2012
Zanele Muholi, LiTer II, 2012, Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa. Stevenson.

Would you like to read more about erotica art? Make sure to check out: