Museum  March 28, 2023  Cynthia Close

Queer Art Takes Center Stage in “The First Homosexuals”

Collection of Historic Richmond Town

Alice Austen, Trude & I Masted, Short Skirts. 1891, silver gelatin negative

In the hotly contested battleground of Gender Studies, art historian Jonathan D. Katz is a trailblazer. He was the first tenured faculty in Gay and Lesbian Studies in the United States and has curated more queer-related art exhibitions than anyone else worldwide. Katz is an internationally recognized expert in queer post-war American art. In his current role as Professor of Practice in the History of Art and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he amassed a group of 23 learned scholars to join him in research to curate The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930 a two-part exhibition designed for Chicago’s newest cultural venue, Wrightwood 659. 

The first segment opened in October 2022 to rave reviews and was extended to January 2023. Featuring more than one hundred paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and film clips drawn from public and private collections around the globe, the show also included several works which have never been exhibited outside their countries. In 2025, two hundred and fifty masterworks will be gathered for the second part of The First Homosexuals. The exhibition will travel internationally, accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue. It is the first multi-medium survey of the first self-consciously queer art.

Wikimedia Commons

Salutat (1898). Oil on canvas, 126.4 × 101.0 cm (49+3⁄4 × 39+3⁄4 in). Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts

The word “homosexual” was first coined in Europe in 1869 inaugurating the idea of same-sex desire as the basis for a new identity category making that year a logical marker providing a historical focus for the exhibition. Defining the point when Homo vs Hetero became segregated was challenging. Professor Katz explained, “All history is long-term. Mapping change is slow and filled with nuances…Taking a global view, introducing indigenous beliefs, cultural differences, and the impact of colonialism, complicates the issue.”  

Acting as both an enthusiastic guide, and informed scholar, Professor Katz  elaborated, “The exhibition had originally been conceived as one blockbuster show, but Covid caused us to rethink our options. As institutions closed globally, we lost certain loan commitments, so we decided to take what we could get for the first part…” The history of homosexuality is filled with the bodies of those activists who came before Prof. Katz, in both the political and cultural spheres.

Image Courtesy of Shin Gallery, New York

Gerda Wegener, Venus and Amor, (not dated), Oil on canvas, 90 x 125 cm, The Shin Collection, New York


Upon closer inspection, the cultural realm has historically far outpaced the political in its embrace of homosexuality at every level and in every form and medium of creative expression, writing, performance, and the visual arts. In 1908, American cultural icon and ex-pat living in Paris, avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, “proposed” to Alice B. Toklas. They became the center of European art circles, hosting “salons” that included the young Picasso and Matisse.

All the artworks in this exhibition are emblematic of the public versus private nature of homosexuality. Done as a study for a larger painting of the subject, the same-sex eroticism displayed in the photograph Circle of Eakins, Thomas Eakins and students swimming nude ca. 1883 is hiding in plain sight.

Private Collection

Owe Zerge, Model Act, 1919, Oil on canvas, 135 x 50 cm

The male gaze on male bodies is a thread running through much of Eakins's work, as exemplified in the oil painting Salutat (1898). In this tour de force of male physicality, every muscle of the main subject’s body is lovingly rendered, yet there is a reluctance among major institutions that collecting Eakins is recognizing the implications of that gaze.

Self-awareness and self-display are also key components found in the work included here and the oil on canvas Retrato de un anticuario o Retrato de Chucho Reyes y autorretrato, 1926, by Mexican muralist Roberto Montenegro, is so over-the-top (but in a good way) in its appropriation of every homosexual stereotype, it was a bold step to select this work as the signifying image for the exhibition. The revelation of the artist as well as the revelation of their subject is a component of most great art. The viewer in turn may then share in that revelation. As Prof. Katz observed, “The most remarkable thing being in the gallery was seeing the almost sacred reaction of people. They were fully engaged and responding in a very visceral way.”

© Estate of Duncan Grant. All rights reserved, DACS, London / ARS, New York.

Duncan Grant, Bathers at the Pond


For those who were not able to attend the 2023 exhibition in Chicago, the bigger show will travel. Prof. Katz and his team are actively planning the next iteration of The First Homosexuals. “We are sending out RFPs now to potential hosting institutions in conservative states as well as international venues for scheduling in 2025 and beyond.” It promises to be the blockbuster he originally envisioned.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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