Homosexuality In Art

By Peter Aspden

The love that dares not speak its name, in Oscar Wilde’s haunting phrase, has been a perennial concern of artists since the beginning of art. 


Homosexuality has, for most of history, been a taboo subject. Yet art is never greater than when it questions social convention and exposes hypocrisy. It is only in relatively recent times  that the subject of homoeroticism has been able to be addressed with any seriousness at all. With the growing acceptance of sexual diversity has come a rethinking of the role played by homosexuality in art history. Only now can we properly appreciate that Eros comes in many guises.

None understood this better than the ancient Greeks, who were not shy to depict the various sources of pleasure to be found in the socially acceptable relationships between older man and youth, or erastes and eromenos. Greek art sought to idealise this liaison between worldly mentor and his callow companion by focusing, to the point of obsession, on the beauty of the younger man.

Strong emotional bonds between men, such as that between Achilles and Patroclus, were depicted with great sensitivity and tenderness in Greek art; more overtly sexual acts, such as the practice of intercrural, or non-penetrative, sex also featured heavily. (Scenes showing sex between lesbians were much rarer, and are thought to have functioned as erotica for men.) 


It took millennia for such frankness to reappear in western art. Christianity disapproved of all erotic art, but particularly anything that hinted at homosexual attraction. It did not stop the great painters of the Renaissance, many of whom are today acknowledged as gay, from portraying the sexual allure of men.

Most famously, the various versions of St Sebastian’s martyrdom, showing a suspiciously muscular torso punctured by arrows, achieved iconic status among homosexual admirers who responded not only to his physical beauty, but also to his plight as a tortured, yet steadfast, martyr. Wilde, remembering an encounter with such a painting by Guido Reni in Genoa, wrote of the “lovely brown boy, with crisp, clustering hair and red lips” who had evidently entranced him. That same sensuality can be seen in the twisted, loin-clothed torso of Marcel Delmotte’s Saint Sebastian, painted a couple of hundred years after Reni’s many attempts at the subject. 

Homosexuality as a label, or a mode of identity, did not appear in Europe until the 19th century. Correspondingly, a new style of male eroticism began to appear in art. In Frederic, Lord Leighton’s The Sluggard, we sense in the young man’s early-morning stretch a kind of languorous mischief that is a long way from the traditional, muscle-bound poses associated with masculine grandeur (as shown, for example, in Antoine-Louis Barye’s taut scene of Theseus slaying the Minotaur).


It took until the epochal social changes of the 1960s (and specifically the decriminalisation act of 1967 in the UK)  for homosexuality to prise itself out of the closet, and art acted as both catalyst and recorder of the moment. With liberation, and a certain amount of tolerance, came more graphic, but also more nuanced, versions of same-sex relationships.

Part of it was pure celebration: the orgiastic goings-on in the Russian Surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew’s Erotic Scene, and the Briton Keith Vaughan’s Erotic Fantasies series, seem deliberately to provoke, luxuriating in the ability, after more than 2,000 years of suppression, to indulge in wild excess. Here was sex practised frankly and triumphantly, without reserve, an end in itself. 

Vaughan, for whom liberation arrived too late, wrote movingly of the personal paradox at play here: “I think by nature I am ill-equipped for the sensual life… I cannot help a sense of dismay when I look back on my lost youth. All those years when I should have been young & free & daring, but was living in the hen-coop of my mother’s tolerance or approval, which I dared not outrage.”

Flying a long way indeed from the hen-coop, New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe continued in that same spirit of provocation, and then some. Mapplethorpe depicted the sado-masochistic tropes of gay sex, not primarily as attempts to outrage the public, but as neutral, if beautifully shot, records of homosexual activity. There was nothing in his photographs, he insisted, that he had not practised himself.

In 1980’s Phillip Prioleau (from Portfolio Z), Mapplethorpe’s subject holds his erect penis in matter-of-fact, almost documentary style, far from the exultant priapism of the Greek satyrs whose leery grins can be seen to this day in any Athenian postcard shop. Mapplethorpe’s career brought him into non-stop conflict with those who disapproved of his work, and by extension his way of life. By the time of his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1989, the alarming spread of the disease had become a clarion-call for gay artists, resulting in the explicitly political art of Keith Haring and the Gran Fury collective. 


Under the cool gaze of Andy Warhol, meanwhile, the cliched hyper-masculinity of gay pin-ups was gently ironised: his starkly-lit, tightly-cropped Body Builder of 1982 is absurdly out of proportion, an affront to classical ideals of manly beauty.

The 21st century has seen a growing acceptance of homosexuality, but only up to a point. Artists continue to challenge those who would deny their right to express and commentate on their own sexual orientation, most recently in 2010’s "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, which provoked calls for a congressional review of the Smithsonian’s funding.

But the subject of homoeroticism continues to make its presence felt in the cultural mainstream: witness the British Museum’s A Little Gay History guide, explicitly drawing attention to objects with homosexual themes in the collection. The museum went so far as to include David Hockney’s 1966 etching In the Dull Village in its “A History of the World in 100 Objects” project. The work shows two relaxed, comfortable young men in bed together, in happy, non-propagandising normalcy.

It has taken an age, but the love that dared not speak its name has become the love that can no longer be denied.

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