Leslie Lohman Museum

Classical Nudes and the Making of Queer History
October 17, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Curated by Jonathan David Katz
Funding provided by the John Burton Harter Charitable Trust



For over 2,500 years, the classical nude has been the dominant visual form for representing the human body in the Western world. Ironically, all that time, it has also been intertwined with the history of perhaps the least visible aspect of our self-representation—the history and iconography of same-sex desire. These nudes are in every sense of the term iconic; they are the building blocks of our Western visual culture.

For centuries, queer people have stared at classical nudes for secret signs that speak to them, of them. Figuratively creating spaces where men can touch other men—and women other women—the classical nude was inevitably connected to a vision of a classical past that endorsed, even celebrated same-sex desire. From the very first wide-scale recovery of that past in the Renaissance to the scholarly work of the great German classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann to the present day, every time classical nudes have re-emerged into discourse or fashion, it is evidence of a changing historical understanding of same-sex desire.

One such shifting historical frame is clearly in evidence in the last part of the exhibition. Because of millennia of overt sexism, the vast majority of classical nudes of same-sex origin are male. It was not until the mid-to-late 19th century that female artists were allowed to professionally represent the human form and thus their own same-sex desire.

Our modern ideas about sexuality demand that we scour the past for evidence of notions about queerness that we can recognize and name as precedents, that we can call our foremothers and forefathers. Yet, paradoxically, in order to understand this past as in fact “the past,” it has to appear different from what we know today. The tradition of the classical nude answers this desire because it is both familiar and yet also historically distant. Our identity today finds itself mirrored in a classical past that is both stable and ever evolving—no surprise given that we invented that past in order to find ourselves within it.

Made possible in part with public funds from the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by New York State Council
on the Arts and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.


Wilhelm von Gloeden
German, 1856-1931
Untitled ca. 1910
Albumen print
7 x 5.5 in.
Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum, Founders’ gift

Following the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895, when Europe grew increasingly dangerous for homosexuals, von Gloeden fled Germany. He moved to Taormina, a town on the eastern coast of Sicily, where he built a villa and quickly discovered that the impoverished local boys and youth would pose nude for money. His photographs often clothe their homoeroticism in a classical idiom. Charles Leslie wrote one of the first English books on the work of von Gloeden.

Harter was a museum professional and figurative painter of the classical nude. Here a painting is made into a tromp l’oeil image of a classical sculpture relief of homoerotic intent. But even when his references to classicism are less in the foreground, his work is still profoundly informed by classical prototypes.

The charitable foundation which bears his name (following his unsolved murder in 2002) has supported LGBTQ art exhibitions, such as this, throughout the United States.


John Burton Harter
American, 1940-2002
Relief, 2001
Oil on panel
30 x 30 in.
Collection of John Burton Harter Charitable Trust housed at the University at Buffalo


James Anderson
English, 1813-1877
Hermaphrodite, Villa Borghese, 1865
Albumen print
8 x 10 in.
Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, Gift of William Knight Zewadski

This is a photo of a famous Classical sculpture, Sleeping Hermaphroditus, in the collection of the Villa Borghese in Rome. An ancient Roman copy after a Greek original, one of three such copies that have been found. All the copies feature a figure who appears unquestionably female from the rear asleep on a bed. Viewed from the front, however, the nude figure reveals both breasts and, unmistakably, a penis and testicles. It has been one of the most commonly reproduced classical images.


Herbert List
German, 1903-1975
Plaster casts, academy I, Munich, 1946
Gelatin silver print
11.4 x 9 in.
Collection of William Knight Zewadski


Herbert List
German, 1903-1975
Rosse Führer von Bernherd, Munchen, 1946
Gelatin silver print
9.333 x 12.5 in.
Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, Gift of William Knight Zewadski

Shortly after the fall of the Third Reich, this great German gay photographer created these images of the bombed out Glyptothek, the fabled royal collection of classical antique sculpture in Munich. It became a meditation on human mortality and the tragic death of youth.

Note elsewhere in the exhibition more typical work by List, depicting a male youth in a classical scenario, literally posed beneath the columns of the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion on the coast of Greece.


Centaur and Lapith (Biter Group),
Olympia West Pediment
cast ca. 1882-1883
original ca. 460-55 BCE
Plaster cast
21.5 x 15.5 x 6.8 cm
Courtesy of Cornell University, Plaster Cast Collection


Imperial Roman Male Torso (perhaps Apollo),
1st century CE
Thasian marble
39 in.
Courtesy Antiquarium, Ltd. Fine Ancient Arts Gallery, New York


Untitled ca. 540 BCE
Greek, Attic, black glazed in Six’s technique
16.125 x 10.25 in.
Courtesy Antiquarium, Ltd. Fine Ancient Arts Gallery, New York

The classical past, with its visible and forthright affirmation of same-sex relationships, has long served as both an emotional touchstone and utopian counter-narrative for generations attracted to their own sex. Indeed, in 19th-century polite discourse, homosexuality was itself often simply referred to as “the vice of the Greeks.” Tellingly, we have very few images of same-sex eroticism among women, but abundant images among males, mostly conforming to the traditional erotic relationship between an adult male and an ephebic youth.


Lyle Ashton Harris
American, b. 1965
Constructs #12, 1989
Gelatin silver print
72 x 36 in.
Collection of Thomas Erben, New York, Courtesy of the artist

Skyrocketing to early fame with a series of nude highly performative self-portraits, Harris’s Constructs series was shown to great acclaim in the defining Black Male show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1994. The work features Harris playing with a number of gender, racial, and sexual signifiers in an attempt to emphasize the construction of the black male body in the post-Mapplethorpe era.

The original, now housed at the British Museum, provides a unique link between queer histories both ancient and modern. This exquisite silver cup features a sex scene with two men on one side and a man and a boy on the other. This first side is remarkable, however, because it is a unique example from the Greco-Roman world of a sex scene featuring two men of the same age coupling, as a boy looks on from the door which stands ajar.

The cup bespeaks a point at which the history of ancient erotic art and modern queer history intersect in the person of its earliest known collector: Edward Perry Warren. A wealthy Bostonian educated at Harvard and Oxford, Warren was a keen philhellene and collector of ancient art who established a community of gay aesthetes at his home at Lewes House in Sussex, England.

Warren fostered the early careers of art historians Bernard Berenson and John Beazley, and in 1895 became the purchasing agent for the antiquities collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Along with them, he and his life partner, John Marshall, the antiquities purchasing agent for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were responsible for the acquisition of much of the best-known Greek and Roman art in this country.

Their proclivities as collectors were well known during their lifetimes. However, thermo luminescence analysis has revealed that a whole series of Arretine ware pieces from their collections, decorated with homoerotic scenes and symposia, are modern forgeries.

While The Warren Cup may well have been a sexual fantasy for learned men, some do not believe it is an ancient one. However, whether it hails from the 1st century CE or from the early twentieth century, The Warren Cup is clearly a critically important monument of queer history.


Warren Cup (replica), 2000, 0riginal ca. mid-1st century CE
Sterling Silver, unnumbered issue from edition of 12
4.4 x 3.6 in.
Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum, Founders’ gift


Jean-Jacques Pradier
French, 1790-1852
Standing Sappho, modeled 1848, cast ca. 1851
33.88 x 14.57 x 13 in.
Collection of the Dahesh Museum of Art, New York

Sappho, the Greek lyric poet born on the island of Lesbos, was considered to be one of the greatest Greek poets in Antiquity, her gender notwithstanding in the period’s highly male chauvinist context.

Though only a small fragment of her works survive, they are tellingly dedicated to women. We derive the two leading terms for female homosexuality from her: sapphic and—after the island of her birth, Lesbos — lesbian. Her poetry became widely read in the 19th century when this sculpture was made by Pradier, a Swiss born French neoclassical sculptor.

This piece’s theme is one of the most characteristic licentious scenarios afforded by classical mythology. Bacchanalia were ancient religious rites associated with the Greek deity Dionysus or his Roman equivalent Bacchus—god of grapes, wine, drunkenness and, not coincidentally, fertility. Since in the Classical world only adult males could be citizens, and thus free, the many constraints governing the lives of women, slaves, and foreigners were temporarily relaxed during Bacchanalia, aided and abetted by drunkenness.

Silenus was Dionysus’ older tutor and friend, generally portrayed as a heavy, drunken nude figure. Bacchanalia tended to conflate sex and drink, and Mantegna’s prints on the theme include both homo and hetero eroticism. Note how two men and a satyr lift Silenus by his chubby thighs, while to the left, one man carries a woman on his back and another carries a man.

In Bacchanal with Wine Vat an ephebic youth is pawed by an older man, while two drunken putti sleep it off. Both images were intensely studied by Paul Cadmus, who used them to model parts of two paintings, Shore Leave and his infamous The Fleet’s In.


Andrea Mantegna
Italian 1431-1506)
Bacchanal with Silenus, ca. 1490
12.63 x 17.32 in.
Collection of the Spencer Museum or Art, The University of Kansas, Gift from the John J. Talleur and Ann Talleur Collection


Attributed to Paolo Schiavo
Italian, 1397-1478
Birth Platter with the Story of Diana and Actaeon, ca. 1440
Tempera on panel
27.95 x 27.95 in.
Collection of the Williams College Museum of Art, Bequest of Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.,
Class of 1889

Due to the high death rates of both mothers and infants in 15th century Tuscany, a desco da parto, or birth platter, was an important gift to mark a birth where both the mother and child survived.

This plate, ca. 1440, depicts the Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon. Diana, the huntress, has long been a symbol of female same-sex attraction. Note Romaine Brooks’s Chasseresse (The Huntress) on the opposite wall from 1920.

In this image, true to the myth, Diana is nude and enjoying a bath in a spring with a group of female nymphs. A man named Actaeon, arrives. The nymphs scream in surprise and attempt to cover Diana, who, in a fit of embarrassed fury, splashes water on him. He is transformed into a deer with a dappled hide and long antlers, robbed of his ability to speak, and promptly flees in fear, pursued by dogs who ultimately kill him. Note the George Platt Lynes 1937 photograph of Actaeon on the wall to your left.

As Patricia Simons notes, “The autoeroticism of Dianic gatherings was reported in 1435-37 by German theologian Johannes Nider when he passed on a tale about a woman who rubbed herself with salve and fell into a trance whereupon she believed that she had been Diana.”

This woodcut, after the work of the great mannerist painter Parmigianino, depicts the beautiful young Narcissus, who had fallen in love with his own image as reflected in a pool or spring. In the foreground is the nymph Echo, who was rejected by Narcissus and ultimately wasting away so that only her voice remained. The tale’s implicit homoeroticism, as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, made it a common source for artists, such as Parmagianino, whose work celebrated youthful male beauty. Note Duane Michals’s Narcissus later on in the exhibition.


Antonio da Trento
Italian, 1508-1550
Narcissus at the Spring; after Parmigianino, 1525
Chiaroscuro woodcut
11.44 x 7.07 in.
Gift of Samuel Isham, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The NewYork Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations


Marcantonio Raimondi
Italian, 1480-1534
The Climbers, 1510
11.32 x 9 in.
Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

While working on the fresco of the Battle of Cascina in 1505 commissioned by the city of Florence, Michelangelo was summoned to Rome by 62 year-old Pope Julius II to begin work on his tomb. Michelangelo left the commission unfinished.

Four years later, Marcantonio Raimondi, an engraver known mostly for reproducing other artists’ work, came across Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings for the Florentine commission. The printmaking techniques developed by Raimondi have been used by artists for centuries.

The image shown depicts the male form as it was found in classical sculpture , in a style prevalent in Florence at the time. Another version of it is in the British Museum.

Around 1524, Marcantonio was briefly imprisoned by another Pope (Clement VII) for printing a set of erotic engravings from the designs of Giulio Romano.

This etching of St. Christopher is clearly modeled, like Michelangelo’s falling figure, on the Belvedere Torso. The ostensible religious theme seems incidental to an image of a muscular nude carrying a small child on his back.


Guido Reni
Italian, 1575-1642
St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child, 1600-1617
10.25 x 8 in.
Collection of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY, Gift of Audrey McMahon


Albrecht Dürer
The Men’s Bath, 1498
15.44 x 11.13 in.
Gift of Samuel Isham, Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Like Mantegna’s bacchanalia prints, Dürer’s The Men’s Bath casually figures the Renaissance’s relative acceptance of homoerotic imagery—a tolerance born of the recovery of Classicism in all its facets—and one that would be almost impossible to find again in Europe for several hundred years.

Dürer’s The Men’s Bath makes a series of bawdy visual puns, arranging the figure leaning on the post with the spigot in such a way as to have the spigot read as his penis. Even the tree seems to embed phallic forms, while the foreground figures frame the crotch of a flutist whose linen jock seems to be slipping. Flute playing, like playing pan pipes, itself becomes a homoerotic reference.

This magnificent painting depicts one of the French painter’s favorite themes—he even painted a children’s Bacchanal and another featuring the young Bacchus. Here the image of a handsome Bacchus is set within a classical landscape. Poussin is rarely counted as a homoerotic painter, yet his work features more powerfully built male nudes than female nudes and repeated themes involving the representation of beautiful young men such as Narcissus or Adonis in addition to his Bacchanals.


School of Nicolas Poussin
French (1594-1665), probably by Gaspard Dughet, French (1615-1675) and Carlo Maratti, Italian (1625-1713)
Bacchanal, ca. 1664-1670
Oil on canvas
36.5 x 50 in.
Collection of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, CUNY, Gift of Arthur L. Erlanger


Johann Joachim Winckelmann,
German, 1717-1768
Monumenti Antichi Inediti, 1767
Volume Primo and Volume Secondo
Handmade books
Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum, Foundation purchase with funds provided by Douglas Blair Turnbaugh and others


Johann Joachim Winckelmann,
German, 1717-1768
Monumenti Antichi Inediti, 1767
Volume Primo and Volume Secondo
Handmade books
Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum, Foundation purchase with funds provided by Douglas Blair Turnbaugh and others

Winckelmann’s famous account of antique monuments, which has been widely misconstrued, is one of the last published works by this famous founder of the discipline of art history.

Clearly, the author found in antique statuary a reflection of his own erotics. Winckelmann’s homosexuality was openly addressed by no less a light than Goethe, who noted the author’s fondness for beautiful youths. Winckelmann was murdered by a younger man, with whom he might have been sexually intimate, in the course of a robbery.

This chalk study is of a figure located about three-quarters of the way down on the right side of Michelangelo’s famous The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The figure is reaching out to others to stay his fall into Hell.

More closely modeled on the then newly excavated classical statuary such as the Belvedere Torso (now in the Vattican Museum) than any careful fidelity to anatomy, this drawing, like other works by Michelangelo, contains muscle groups that aren’t actually in the body, but that look plausible.


Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni
Italian, 1475-1564
Untitled (study of a male figure from The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel), ca. 1540
Black chalk on paper
7.25 x 11.25 in.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Borghi


Pontormo (Jacopo Carucci)
Italian, 1494-1557
Untitled (study of a male figure for Ten Thousand Martyrs), ca. 1528-30
Red chalk on paper
14 x 6 in.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Mark Borghi

This anatomical red-chalk study of a male figure is one of many images of men painted by Pontormo. Indeed, his decorative fresco depicting beautiful, languorous youths, entitled Vertumnus and Pomona for the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano, remains, alongside Michelangelo’s David, a perennial gay favorite of the period—not least for turning a classical myth of heterosexual seduction into a homoerotic set piece.

Pontormo seems to have genuinely loved his students, Naldini and Bronzino, and his diaries are full of expressions of longing for them. He even tried to adopt them as his sons, though that failed in the case of Bronzino. In turn, Bronzino sought to claim the estate of Pontormo, citing his love for his master.


Carlo Cesio
Italian, ca. 1622-1682
Ganymede Abducted by Jupiter’s Eagle, 1675
11 x 12.69 in.
Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs,
The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations


Untitled (a faun), ca. 1650
Charcoal on paper
21.75 x 15.75 in.
Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum, Founders’ gift

This beautiful faun, by an unknown artist, features the characteristic goat-like tail above the buttocks, but is absent the goat legs and hoofs common to the type. His powerful, athletic body suggests that he holds a discus in his hand.

This Rape of Ganymede inverts the usual iconography of Zeus in the form of an eagle lifting the naked youth aloft. Instead, here it is the seated muscular Zeus who is nude, his genitals on full, ample display. From his perch, Zeus grasps Ganymede, cup in hand, by the shoulder, as he seems to float by—and Ganymede returns his tender embrace. Even more strangely, the face of Zeus and of Ganymede bear a striking resemblance, as if they are more or less the same age. This act of rape thus seems to be reinterpreted by Fuseli into something approaching consensual homosexuality, especially given the intense look of longing exchanged between the two young men.


Henry Fuseli
Swiss, 1741-1825
The Rape of Ganymede, 1804
12.38 x 9.5 in.
Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

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