The Love that Dare not Speak its Name: The Visual Representation of Female Homoerotics in Nineteenth-Century France

Sophie Dynbort is a Montreal native entering her third year at Concordia where she majors in art history and minors in marketing. She will study at the Sorbonne University in Paris next year as a part of Concordia’s international exchange program and continue her research on lesbian representations in French art. She is particularly interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement and new transnational art. She has gained much practical experience in the industry by working at a Montreal auction house. As for her future plans, Sophie intends to pursue a joint MBA/MFA, where she hopes to combine knowledge of the arts and business in order to pursue a future career that encompasses both.


The purpose of this study is to further our understanding of the past, or as James M. Saslow has so aptly stated, “create a usable past” [1]. Concerning the history of homosexual representations in art, there has been much confusion mainly due to the fact that, since its appearance in Ancient Canaan, society has had difficulty accepting it. Although the presence of homosexuality in visual art can be found in virtually all epochs since Ancient Greece, no other period has explored the idea of homosexuality amongst women so conscientiously or intelligently as nineteenth-century France. Ironically, the nineteenth-century attitude towards homosexuality was quite schizophrenic, and as a result the majority of art depicting homosexuality from this period has been both suppressed and misunderstood. This paper shall examine three nineteenth-century French artists, each of whom offered an original depiction of lesbianism within the same broad cultural context: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The first part of this essay will examine lesbianism within the social and historical context of nineteenth-century France. The second portion will examine the works of the above-mentioned artists in relation to the first section of this essay.

The history of homosexuality is not straightforward and demands careful attention when examining works of art which deal with the subject. In light of the nature of these works, this paper will only consider the theme of homosexuality amongst women. Male homosexual culture differs significantly from lesbian customs, which requires that they be examined separately on many issues. It should be noted that nineteenth-century attitudes towards homosexual men were quite radical in comparison to those regarding lesbians. Bernard Talmey, M.D., articulated this in his 1908 publication, Woman: A Treatise on the Normal and Pathological Emotions of Feminine Love. According to Talmey, there was a discrepancy in treatment between cases of male homosexuality and female homosexuality; while instances of homosexuality among men were made a crime, it was not considered an offense among women [2].

In considering the discrepancy in treatment between homosexual men and women, it is worthwhile to discuss the 1811 trial of Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie in comparison to Oscar Wilde’s trial of 1895. Although both trials occurred at different times in the nineteenth-century, a comparison provides an interesting view of the gendered norms in the nineteenth-century. The Woods and Pirie trial was a libel case brought about by two teachers accused of having sexual relations by Lady Cumming Gordon and her student granddaughter Jane Cumming [3]. The two schoolteachers were accused of engaging in “improper and criminal conduct” with each other, and, as a result, were subject to severe criticism. Miss Woods and Miss Pirie sued Lady Cumming Gordon for damaging their reputations, however, in response Lady Cumming Gordon accused the two teachers of engaging in “improper and criminal conduct”. They were initially found guilty, yet appealed one year later and were found innocent. As for Lady Cumming Gordon, she appealed, lost, and deferred payment of their claim. What resulted of the trial and whether the two schoolteachers received compensation is unknown.

In comparison, such was not the case with Oscar Wilde, who was charged with committing acts of indecency with other male persons in 1895 [4]. Wilde became intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of Archibald William Douglas, 8th Marquess of Queensbury. Enraged by their relationship, The Marquess of Queensbury accused Wilde of sodomy and, as a result, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Upon his release, he fled to France, where he remained until his death in 1900.

An examination of the Woods/Pirie trial and the Wilde trial reveal the contrasting views towards female and male homosexuality in the nineteenth-century. While the allegations of improper conduct against Miss Woods and Miss Pirie were effortlessly dismissed, they became implicit for the imprisonment of Mr. Wilde several decades later. According to Talmey, this discrepancy is based upon a woman’s non-aggressive nature. Therefore, homosexuality is not as easily detectable in women as it is in men. He further states, “women’s attachments are considered mere friendships by outsiders … we are, therefore, less apt to suspect the existence of abnormal passions among women” [5].

The above statement reveals several issues that encapsulate nineteenth-century attitudes towards lesbianism and women in particular. The most critical and obvious point was that women were seen as being non-aggressive. Secondly, women’s relationships were not acknowledged as heterosexual or homosexual. Instead they were rather relegated to the category of friendship. Lastly, passionate relationships amongst women were recognized as abnormal affairs.

It is important to take note that there were two different qualities that a homosexual woman could embody. The first incorporates the idea of the natural feminine. According to Lillian Faderman, these relationships among women were often termed “the love of kindred spirits,” or “Boston marriages, and sentimental friend.” These romantic attachments, whereby women sought comfort in other females for emotional security, can be seen evolved from not only the eighteenth-century but in the seventeenth-century as well. In fact, according to Faderman, these relationships were encouraged and considered dignified and virtuous in every sense. She states that these were love relationships at all levels, except the genital. In other words, women might have kissed, fondled, slept together, and in many instances expressed their love for one another. A woman’s sensuality was often suppressed and can perhaps explain why one would seek other females for emotional security. Furthermore, Victorian mores encouraged women to be asexual, to fear premarital sex, and only indulge in coitus for the purpose of procreation. It is not surprising that women in previous centuries internalized the idea of women having little sexual passion [6].

At a superficial glance, what may be considered surprising about these romantic friendships is that society appeared to condone them and did not see them as disturbing the social order. As Talmey indicates, “such friendships are often fostered by parents and guardians, such attachments are praised and commended. They are not in the least degree suspected of being of homosexual origin” [7].  However, not all female same-sex relationships were condoned.   Such is the case with transvestite women. Women who dressed as men and who engaged in relations with the same gender were often persecuted and sometimes even executed [8].  This raises the second point of view, that a homosexual woman could occupy the role of a social deviant. For the majority of women who dressed like men, it was assumed that they behaved as men sexually. This was very upsetting to male status and was definitely seen as being disruptive to the social order. The instance of two sexually aggressive females contradicted a man’s cultural rights to women’s bodies. Consider the following statement by nineteenth-century sexologist Richard Krafft-Ebing: “Woman is the common property of man, the spoil of the strongest and the mightiest, who chooses the most winsome for his own … Woman is a chattel, an article of commerce, exchange or gift, a vessel for sexual gratification, an implement of toil” [9].

The justification that resulted from the occasion of women who sought to assume a masculine role was a medical and psychological diagnosis. Krafft-Ebing refers to homosexuality amongst women as “congenital sexual inversion” [10] Krafft-Ebing explains that the extent of homosexual love between two women varies. However, when lesbianism is given full expression, one woman will assume a masculine role and possess characteristics of male sexuality.

Faderman notes that there were instances of women engaging in lesbian sex with immunity so long as they appeared feminine. This was justified by the fact that their sexual behaviour was seen as being an alternative when men were unavailable, or as a prelude to heterosexual sex. Basically, it can be gathered that it was the presumptive usurpation of male status by women that was disturbing to society, rather than the sexual aspect of lesbianism.

James M. Saslow points out that the word history has the same root as story. This, according to Saslow, reveals “the basic human need, dating back to the earliest myths, to frame our experiences within collective epics that loom larger than our individual lives.” He continues by stating that many of these stories tell about love among men or among women. He refers to some of the earliest writing about love, dating back to the Ming dynasty, and in the western world, to the eighteenth-century homosexual art historian, Johann Winckelmann. In the nineteenth-century, however, within the context of Realism or Naturalism, the presence of lesbian themes in the works of contemporary artists is quite apparent. In fact, lesbian imagery became somewhat typical in nineteenth-century French literature; partly due to the rise of feminism and the hostility of the aesthetes to bourgeois morality [11].

Of the most influential French nineteenth-century writers, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and Théophile Gautier each explored the theme of lesbianism in his own way. For example, Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), one of the most significant literary works with this theme, depicts lesbians as avant-garde heroines in an attack upon bourgeois conventions and morality. In Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835), he depicts a similar image of the lesbian as in Gautier’s book, yet approached the theme from a different direction. While Gautier found the French too righteous and Christian, Balzac saw them as being too “universally tolerant.” Both of these works were strongly influenced by the writings of Baudelaire, who referred to lesbians as “femmes damnées,” and wrote a volume of poems called Les Lesbiennes in which he depicts the love between lesbians as being tormented [12].

The fictional writings on lesbianism have had a profound effect on the artists themselves. It is important to remember that whilst examining these works, the images of lesbians reflect the artist’s personal attitude toward sexuality, as well as that of his patron. Thus, one must examine these works in terms of what they reveal about male heterosexual approach to female sexuality, and about the role of art and voyeurism.

In Turkish Bath, 1859-1862 (Fig. 1), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicts a male fantasy: a variant of a Turkish harem, overflowing with his familiar nude odalisques in classicized poses. The implications of the voyeur are quite intense. Ingres constructs a glorified image of the female nude within a closed world to which the women are formally confined in a scene that is normally forbidden to the male gaze. While the male viewer is formally excluded, he is accepted and acknowledged as a voyeur. Moreover, he is invited to indulge in this virtual bath of woman; everywhere he looks is confronted with naked female bodies. In fact, instead of being viewed as a group of women, this piece can also be read as one woman displaying herself in every imaginable pose. This is further reinforced by the fact that, according to one of the models for this work, Ingres used hexagonal mirrors in his studio, which “permitted him with a single model to draw the same woman from every angle” [13].

The instance of homosexual affection within this work is quite intriguing, but it is somewhat obscured and requires close attention. In this manner, it can be said that Ingres both confirmed and denied the presence of lesbianism in his harem. Marilyn R. Brown interprets this phenomenon within the picture, in relation to the two women to the right of the composition, as follows:

On the immediate left of the composite “Mme. Ingres” figure is located an apparently embracing pair of women. Whereas the “Mme. Ingres” figure wears, as noted previously, Le Brun’s textbook expressions of passion “Ecstasy,” the figure in the ornate pillbox hat to her left sports Le Brun’s expression of “Desire,” and the figure with the angel’s face whom she seems to caress wears the expression of “Pure Love.” A trinity of passions, as it were, with two femmes damnées. But are they really? A drawing for the “angel-faced” nude given by Ingres to Théophile Gautier in 1861 would seem to indicate that she cups her hand around her own breast. But in the final painting Ingres cleverly overlapped the adjacent bodies so that this figure could be read as being fondled by her neighbour [14].

Although the composition consists of only women, a constant reminder of the male presence is evident. This is seen through the figure, also depicted in Ingres’ Bather of Valpinçon, 1808 (Fig. 2), whose rear is facing the viewer to the left of the above-mentioned triad. Not only does this provide a barrier in the composition, the figure bares a gaze that suggests she is an outsider looking in. Furthermore, this emphasizes the voyeuristic attitude of the painting. In this sense the female’s gaze can be considered equal to that of the male. We can further examine this trope in reference to its relationship with Lady Mary Wortley Montague, a Westerner who traveled to Constantinople. It is known that Turkish Bath was largely influenced by her texts and their importance on the work is quite evident in this parallel. By this comparison, the figure of the bather is allegorical of Lady Montague; as a Westerner she assumes the male role of voyeur in relation to her Eastern counterparts.

The history of Turkish Bath prior to its acquisition by the Louvre in 1911 is rather long and complex. The literature regarding the history of the piece is somewhat contradictory regarding the first patron; some sources state that the initial owner was Prince Anatole Demidoff, while others assert it was The Prince Napoléon. Irrespective of this, it has been established that Ingres began work on the piece in 1848. In 1859, when Ingres considered it finished, Prince Napoléon claimed the work. However, shortly afterwards the painting was returned since Princess Clotilde, shocked by the nudity, found it inappropriate for a family residence [15]. At the beginning of 1860, Ingres retook possession of the painting and a second photograph of the work was taken. The photograph allows us to trace the development of this work, thus we are able to see Turkish Bath within its original square format. Between the years 1860–1863, Ingres altered the painting by making the following obvious adjustments: he added the bather in the pool, along with several figures behind her, increasing the number of figures to twenty-three. He also covered the eyes of the figure in the lower right corner, added the oriental jar and architectural details to the walls, and most significantly transformed the painting into its circular format. The circular frame emphasizes the roundness and femaleness of the figures, as well as reinforcing the intimate, yet inaccessible voyeuristic view. These adjustments certainly heighten the senses of male fantasy, control, and forbiddance. Perhaps this is what happened to its last owner, Khalil Bey, a former Turkish ambassador to France, who bought it in 1865.

With the onset of Realism a new approach emerged, reinforcing the erotic, romantic literature of contemporary French authors such as Baudelaire and Balzac. This change is apparent through the old and new styles present in two paintings intended for the same patron. One year after Bey bought Ingres’ Turkish Bath, he commissioned Courbet to paint Sleep, 1866 (Fig. 3) [16]. The lesbian theme that Ingres gently touches upon reaches its peak in Courbet’s Sleep. Bey commissioned this work after having seen Courbet’s Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy, 1864-1866 (Fig. 4), while visiting the artist’s studio. After learning that it had been sold, Bey asked for a copy of the work. However, Courbet preferred to offer the ambassador a new painting on the same theme.

Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy [17] is one of Courbet’s greatest works and it has been linked Baudelaire’s Femmes Damnées and Delphine et Hippolyte. In a letter to the art dealer Luquet, Courbet wrote “two life-sized naked women, painted in such a way as you’ve never seen me do before” [18]. Within this oeuvre, Courbet’s treatment of the lesbian theme is linked to the manipulation of traditional myths in an allegorical setting. “Courbet submerges the mythological story, disposing of any discernible references to Venus’ jealous rage because of Psyche’s beauty. Indeed, the mythological reference in the titles may be taken as a piece of respectibilizing camouflage” [19] Courbet creates an intimate composition thereby intensifying the emotional conflict between the two women and suggesting a love conflict between lesbians. However, what is interesting about this work is the seemingly masculine appearance of the Venus figure, which further hints at lesbianism.

Courbet created Venus, Pursuing Psyche with her Jealousy for the 1864 Salon; however, the jury rejected it on the grounds of indecency. He in turn rejected the criticism by stating that “it’s prejudice on the part of the administration, for if this painting is immoral, one must close all museums in Italy, France, and Spain” [20]. With respect to the reception among fellow artists, Jean-François Millet states:

I hear that a picture of nude women by Courbet has been rejected on the ground of impropriety. I have not seen the picture and cannot form any judgment on the jury’s decision, but I find it very hard to imagine that any picture of Courbet’s could be more improper than the indecent works of Cabanel and Baudry at the last Salon, for I have never seen anything that seemed to be a more frank and direct appeal to the passions of bankers and stockbrokers.

However, the art critic for Figaro thought otherwise: “What an idea to reproduce Baudelaire’s Femmes Damnées and to paint, with embellishments, what is already so obscene in print” [21].

Courbet’s Sleep also draws parallels with the works of Baudelaire, and is seen as an interpretation of the myth of Diana. In his description of two naked women sleeping in a loving embrace, the broken strand of pearls and discarded hair clip suggest that the scene is the aftermath of a passionate session of lovemaking. The expressions on the women’s faces suggest sadness and torment, while the broken strand of pearls signifies remorse and a loss of innocence. The intertwining of their limbs heightens the sense of passion, lust and forbiddance.

Courbet’s Sleep and Venus, Pursuing Psyche with Jealousy are two prime examples of the lesbian theme explored through the Realist aesthetic. Courbet does not attempt to mask any aspects of his subject; rather, he heightens its impact through a natural representation of the female anatomy. With regards to the subject of lesbianism, Courbet plays with the theme of feminine homosexuality, but does not appear to pronounce its validity. He does, however, invite notions of sexual fantasy and male delight, as approved by his patron, Khalil Bey.

Another artist who explores the theme of lesbianism in nineteenth-century France is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is said that when he met a man who had read Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, he instantly requested a detailed description of the study [22].  Examinations of his work suggest the importance of urban themes, such as the café, cabaret, and the brothel, and thereby allow a discussion of his work within the context of Realism. Moreover, Lautrec’s depictions of lesbianism seem to be the most reflective and honest representations of Parisian society. It is known that during Lautrec’s years as an art student, he frequented two specific lesbian bars that were located close to his studio, called Le Rat Mort and La Souris. William Rothenstein describes the place where he first met Lautrec in 1887:

The Rat Mort by night had a somewhat doubtful reputation, but during the day was frequented by painters and poets. As a matter of fact it was a notorious centre of lesbianism, a matter of which, being very young, and a novice in Paris, I know nothing. But this gave the Rat Mort an additional attraction to Conder and Lautrec…[23]

Sylvain Bonmariage, a friend of Lautrec, explains how Lautrec would observe the lesbians “with a sort of troubled fascination.” He continues by stating that Lautrec had an obsession with them, and spent all of his time with a “bizarre harem” of lesbians who ignited a sexual curiosity in him. With regards to his relationships with women, Lautrec was unsuccessful; partly owing to his dwarf-like appearance and the fact that no other woman besides his mother could realize his true worth. As a result, it is not surprising that he viewed women as essentially unattainable. He once said Paul Leclerq, “the body of a woman, the body of a beautiful woman is not made for love, it is too exquisite” [24].

In examining Lautrec’s depictions of lesbians, it is uncertain whether the women served as sources of fantasy or warmth and affection, seeing as how these are his only works that reveal any tenderness between human beings. Beginning in 1892, Lautrec had created a series of paintings depicting the intimacy between lesbians in the bedroom (Figs. 5 & 6). Dans Le Lit. Le Baiser, 1892 (Fig. 7), was featured in the gallery window of Le Barc de Boutteville’s permanent ‘Impressionist and Symbolist’ exhibition. However, to their dismay, an angry neighbour protested to the police and the painting was removed. Nevertheless, the painting sold shortly after the incident to Charles Maurin, a friend of Lautrec, for 400 Francs. It should be noted that although Lautrec’s brothel paintings were largely not sold until his death, his friends and acquaintances bought the works depicting lesbians for their own private collections. In addition to Maurin, Gustave Pellet owned two paintings of lesbians, and critic Roger Marx owned another [25].

In these works, Lautrec does not emphasize the idea of sexual fantasy between two women, as do Ingres and Courbet. Rather, he highlights the affection and tenderness that can exist between them. He presents the theme of lesbian love in such a manner that his images appear as though they are representations of heterosexual love, perhaps evoking the question, ‘what is the difference?’ His depictions of lesbianism can also be interpreted as acknowledgements that love between women was not a rejection of him, but a rejection of all men. However, this is not to say that he did not feel rejected by lesbians. In his lithograph for Eros Vanné, 1894 (Fig. 8), a sheet-music cover for a song about the debauchery of lesbianism, Lautrec depicts a lesbian couple at the bar, and a naked boy on crutches in the foreground. It has been suggested that the boy, bandaged and infirm, represents the artist himself. This can be seen as a phallic reference: his rigid leg a metaphor for his enormous penis (which was his according to reputation). More significantly, the boy represents the fact that Lautre was not the man in the couple, nor would ever be [26].

An examination of the preceeding body of works clearly reveals the attitudes towards lesbians in nineteenth-century France, and how they progressively changed over the course of the century. It can be said that in the early part of the century, artists explored lesbianism via myths, and concentrated on a less overt expression of the realities of female homosexuality. During the latter part of the century, as women’s voices began to be heard, artists began exploring lesbianism as an identity and a reality. Within the context of the twenty-first-century, the above-mentioned works provide invaluable reference for contemporary artists to nineteenth-century attitudes towards lesbianism.

List of Illustrations


1. James M. Saslow, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (New York: Viking, 1999) 4.

2. Saslow, 142.

3. Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) 62.

4. David Rodgers, “Oscar Wilde.” Grove Art Online. Oxford UP, May 9 2005, http://0

5. Saslow, 143.

6. Lillian Faderman, Surpassing The Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981) 16.

7. Bernard Talmey, Woman: A Treatise on the Normal and Pathological Emotions of Feminine Love (New York: Practitioners Publishing Company, 1908) 143.

8. Faderman, 17.

9. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 12 th ed., (New York: Bell Publishing, 1965) 2.

10. Krafft-Ebing, 262.

11. Faderman, 265.

12. Faderman, 266.

13. P.Vigué, “Joseph Pagnon, élève d’Ingres,” Bulletin du Musée Ingres (30 December 1971) 22.

14. Dorothy M. Kosinski, “Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers: the Lesbian Image in Nineteenth-Century French Art and Literature,” Artibus et Historiae (Venezia et al., Italy) 9.18 (1988) 62.

15. Kosinski, 61.

16. Saslow, 174.

17. This work disappeared and was then destroyed during the Second World War. Courbet created a modified repetition of it called The Awakening or Venus and Psyche in 1866.

18. Georges Riat, Gustave Courbet, Peintre (Paris: 1906) 216.

19. Kosinski, 190.

20. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, ed., trans., Letters of Gustave Courbet (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) 240.

21. Royal Academy of Arts, Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877: at the Royal Academy of Arts, 19 January – 19 March 1978 (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978) 374.

22. Julia Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life (New York: Viking, 1994) 374.

23. Frey, 375.

24. Frey, 378.

25. Frey, 376.

26. Frey, 376.