9 Queer Artists Who Changed the History of Modern Art Forever

The concept of queer identity emerged in the late nineteenth century and quickly found its reflection in the works of queer artists of the time.

Oct 19, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

queer artists changed history modern art


The phenomenon of queer art has a long history that was ignored by historians for centuries. As Western urban life developed, queer artists were looking for their place in new environments. For some, establishing and expressing one’s identity was a political act, while others avoided attracting attention and referencing their personal lives. Below are 9 great queer artists that made a lasting impact on the history of modern art


Who were Queer Artists? 

renieri sebastian painting
St Sebastian by Niccolo Renieri, c. 1620, via Wikimedia Commons


The term queer art refers to works created by LGBTQ+ artists. These pieces show experiences and issues faced by queer artists. The history of visual codes and motifs chosen by queer artists is rich. Think of the figure of St Sebastian that’s seen as one of the most popular homoerotic symbols. However, art historians started to look at queer art as a separate phenomenon in the late twentieth century influenced by the civil rights movements. Artworks created by LGBTQ+ artists often express ideas and concepts that are less familiar to their heterosexual and gender-conforming colleagues, such as alienation and complex self-identification.


Prior to the nineteenth century, the Western public regarded non-normative sexualities as unwanted. The change happened as urban life and culture progressed. Queerness became another element of identity. One of the turning points in understanding sexuality as a crucial part of a person’s life rather than an act of shameful conduct happened during the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Queer artists began reevaluating their identities not only in their personal but in their artistic careers as well.


Many early modern queer artists were deliberately open about their sexuality, while some preferred to conceal it from the public. Nonetheless, their works demonstrated a unique perspective that was the result of queer identity communicating and clashing with the normative sexuality of the time.

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1. Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899)

bonheur calves painting
Weaning the Calves by Rosa Bonheur, 1879, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The great French painter Rosa Bonheur became famous for her paintings showing animals and nature. At a time when women were barely allowed to pursue artistic careers, she managed to gain international recognition for her style and skill. Bonheur was unusually outspoken about her personal life, making no attempts to conceal her sexuality to appease the homophobic public.


She spent forty years of her life with another French painter called Nathalie Micas. Since many public spaces were unavailable to women then, Bonheur and Micas had to obtain special government permission to dress in male attire while visiting cattle markets and other male-only areas. At the time, it was illegal for a woman to wear trousers without a special permit. Although the law was rarely enforced after the turn of the century, it was officially repealed in 2013.


2. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)

queer artists cahun untitled photo
Untitled by Claude Cahun, 1929, via SFMoMA, San Francisco


The French photographer Claude Cahun did not seek popularity during their lifetime, but decades later, they became an icon of queer surrealism. Their photographic self-portraits explore different aspects of Cahun’s androgynous identity. Cahun said that they were not content with the binary options given in life and preferred their gender to be neutral.


Cahun was also famous for their radical anti-fascist stance and activism. During the German occupation of France, Cahun and their partner Marcel Moore joined the French Resistance movement, spreading anti-Nazi leaflets among soldiers and civilians. During the 1944 trial, both Cahun and Moore were sentenced to death. Cahun proposed to the judge to shoot them twice since they were not only a member of the resistance, but also a Jew. Thankfully, the sentence was never fulfilled, since France was liberated in 1945.


3. Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970)

brooks trajet painting
Le Trajet (The Crossing) by Romaine Brooks, 1911, via Art History Project


Romaine Brooks was a French artist of American origin. Brooks left her abusive family at a young age, finding her place among the society of rich and single immigrant women in Paris. Many of them were lesbian or bisexual. However, their wealth and social status allowed for their independence and comfortable lifestyles. During her life, Romaine Brooks painted dozens of portraits of her friends and lovers, in a way creating a complex and multifaceted image of female queer identity at the time.


Although Brooks’ portraits usually show a cold psychological approach and objectivity, a certain part of her oeuvre appears strikingly different. The turning point of Brooks’ career was her short-lived yet intense relationship with a Ukrainian dancer called Ida Rubinstein. Rubinstein’s temper and mesmerizing beauty haunted Brooks for years, resulting in atypical dreamy portraits that were close to Symbolism and Surrealism in their nature.


4. Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996)

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Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1991, via MoMA, New York


Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Cuba, but he moved to the United States in his early twenties in order to pursue a degree in art. His work was always deeply political. It showed the artist’s pride and identity. The crucial aspect of Gonzalez-Torres’ art is seen in the involvement of the audience. By interacting with the works in front of them, the public adds extra meaning to them.


Gonzalez-Torres’ most acclaimed work deals with the American AIDS crisis and his personal feelings of loss and vulnerability. In 1991, his long-time partner Ross Laycock died from an AIDS-related illness. As a response to his ongoing pain, Gonzalez-Torres created an installation called Perfect Lovers. In this piece, two identical clocks show the same time and gradually fall out of sync. It references Ross Laycock’s time that ran out before his partner’s. Unfortunately, Felix Gonzalez-Torres would also become the victim of the AIDS crisis and die just five years after his partner.


5. Jasper Johns (1930 -)

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Target with Four Faces by Jasper Johns, 1979, via Sotheby’s


The great master of Pop Art Jasper Johns demonstrated his desire to become an artist from an early age, despite his non-artistic background. The only artistic works he saw in his childhood were the paintings done by his grandmother. Johns completely immersed himself in drawing and painting.


One of the integral periods of Jasper Johns’ life and career happened during his six-year relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. Johns and Rauschenberg saw their artistic missions as a quest to undermine the barriers of high and low art. Both artists questioned what was worth depicting in art. Their personalities complimented each other: Jasper Johns, a calm and cautious intellectual, was constantly paralleled by Rauschenberg’s spontaneous temper and penchant for experiments.


6. J.C. Leyendecker (1974 – 1951)

leyendecker football painting
Football Player by J.C. Leyendecker, c. 1912, via Wikipedia


One of the most recognizable American artists, Joseph Christian Leyendecker was responsible for creating many visual images of the United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century.


The widest public appraisal came to Leyendecker when he made his series of commercial illustrations promoting menswear brands. The public, especially young women, were smitten with the perfect looks of his models. These illustrations showed the new ideal of masculinity. The Arrow Collar Man, as they called Leyendecker’s typical character, was a fit young man with broad shoulders, an impressive physique, and fine cheekbones.


Little did the public know that one of Leyendecker’s favorite models for the Arrow Collar Man was a long-time partner and manager of Leyendecker called Charles Beach. However, neither Leyendecker nor Beach ever publicly admitted their relationship, which led some art historians to assume that their alleged romance was the result of misinterpreting the artist’s work.


7. Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992)

queer artists bacon george dyer painting
Portrait of George Dyer in the Mirror by Francis Bacon, 1968, via Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


Francis Bacon created art that showed the reflection of his generation’s post-war trauma, as well as his personal struggles. Despite his non-realistic style and distorted proportions, Bacon often drew inspiration from Old Masters’ paintings, reinterpreting their compositions and subjects. Bacon’s personal experiences shaped his artistic oeuvre in the same way studying art history did. Struggling with alcoholism and mental health issues, the artist frequently found himself in abusive relationships.


Early in his artistic career, some of his partners even destroyed his paintings. In his mid-fifties, Francis Bacon met George Dyer, a young alcoholic with a long criminal past. After their meeting in 1963, Dyer’s figure became a frequent motif in Bacon’s art that demonstrated the contrast between a fit body and vulnerability and trauma. The couple spend seven years together until Dyer’s drug overdose in 1971. Bacon found his partner’s body in the morning before the opening of his first retrospective exhibition in Paris. He continued socializing with the visitors without letting the public know about his personal tragedy.


8. Marie Laurencin (1883 – 1956)

laurencin ball painting
The Elegant Ball by Marie Laurencin, 1913, via Wikipedia


Marie Laurencin was one of the rare women artists associated with French Cubism, although she never was a Cubist. This label stuck with her due to her association with the most prominent Cubists of her time. Laurencin belonged to the artists’ commune called Bateau Lavoir. Their residence and studio space was shared by Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Braque, and many others.


As a woman artist, Laurencin openly talked about the different treatment of men and women in the art world. Despite being married, Marie Laurencin was open about her sexuality. She was in a relationship with Natalie Barney, an American expatriate who hosted the famous salon for lesbian and bisexual Parisian women. Barney was also a partner of Romaine Brooks. Most of Laurencin’s work focused on images of women. Painted through the lens of a queer woman artist, these works demonstrate a gaze free from societal conventions.


9. Tamara de Lempicka: the Flapper Queer Artist (1898 – 1980)

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Portrait de Romana de la Salle by Tamara de Lempicka, via Sotheby’s


A Polish-born painter, Tamara de Lempicka established her reputation as a portraitist after her move to Paris during her early twenties. The great Symbolist Maurice Denis was one of her teachers. Despite being taught in Symbolist and Cubist traditions, De Lempicka quickly developed her own style that is now associated with Art Deco. She took inspiration from works of Parisian avant-garde, Italian Renaissance, and Jeane-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.


Tamara de Lempicka lived during the crazy years in France during the 1920s. That was a vibrant time filled with loud music, dramatic fashion, and parties. She was openly bisexual and free in her relationships. De Lempicka’s art shows a unique portrait of a woman of her age breaking free from the restraints of patriarchal control.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.