Springtime: “The Age of Innocence”

Published in: March-April 2023 issue.


BY “The Age of Innocence” I have in mind the cultural period just before the medicalization of homosexuality in the early 20th century, when it was still possible to engage in same-sex erotic activity without being labeled an “invert.” In what may be a first, all six features are related to this theme, and together they offer a mosaic of lives in these times.

            Not by design, but not entirely by accident, the articles display a strong bias toward France. The fact that both of the names by which this era is known—the fin de siècle and the Belle Époque—are in French speaks to the centrality of Paris as the hub of high culture, especially in the visual arts, through these decades. Three of the six featured subjects were in fact French painters of the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

            Rosa Bonheur, who started painting in the1850s, was one of the last in the great realist tradition that had ruled Europe for centuries, a style that she brought to its highest expression with her photorealist depictions of animals in the wild. As Emily L. Quint Freeman points out, the fact that she made it as a woman is impressive, and she did it by refusing to accept that role and assuming both the manners and privileges of a man. But Bonheur was soon eclipsed by the Impressionists, one of whom was the artist Gustave Caillebotte. Jim Van Buskirk argues here that denying the underlying—sometimes explicit—homoeroticism in his work has been a cottage industry for the past century. Another French painter, Gustave Courtois, worked into the 20th century and brought a homoerotic vibe into the open in paintings of Maurice Deriaz, a wrestler who was a minor celebrity at this time. In doing so, as Eduardo Febles writes, he created a new kind of sensation in the art world that Andy Warhol would bring to fruition decades later.

            Another manifestation of the new celebrity culture was the writer Jean Lorrain, whose life and work are encapsulated here by Laurence Senelick. Lorrain was a decadent poet in Paris who was also a gossip journalist and a flamboyant figure about town, attending artists’ gatherings in painted face, dyed hair, and outrageous costumes. His gay poetry was explicitly sexual in a way that went beyond anything the visual artists could portray.

            An artist who pushed the visual envelope was American painter John Singer Sargent, who produced many paintings and drawings of male nudes, none of them for public display. As Andrew Holleran elaborates, Sargent was clearly obsessed with men and formed close bonds with his models; but who were these men to him? Elsewhere in America—in New York City, to be exact—a curious social trend was afoot: the construction of bachelor-only apartment buildings. William Benemann explains that buildings such as The Benedick in Washington Square attracted an all-male clientele that didn’t object to sharing bathrooms or to the absence of women. If walls could talk, one can only imagine the stories The Benedick’s would tell.