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This Vintage Lesbian Artwork Will Make You Want To Teleport To 19th Century Paris


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Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France features a rare collection of illustrations from the "decadent period" which began in Paris in the 19th century. The original collection was compiled by French author Nicole Albert and published in 2005 under the title "Saphisme et Decadence Dans Paris Fin-De-Siécle." After a reprint in 2016 by Harrington Park Press, the book won the Goldie award for Anthology/Collections (Creative Non-Fiction) from the Golden Crown Literary Society. Translated by Nancy Erber and William Peniston, the reissue is an expanded edition that now includes a number of rare photographs and cartoons from the original author's private collection — many are not publicly available anywhere else.

Bill Cohen, the cofounder of Harrington Park Press — a publishing group that focuses on less-explored scholarly topics relating to the LGBT community — told BuzzFeed News in an interview that although same-sex activities were not criminalized in France at the time, "lesbians were still viewed by psychiatrists as disordered souls."

"Moralists pitied them. In popular society, however, lesbianism was flaunted," he explained. "Some paintings, no doubt, shocked the public in the early 1900s."

Here are a just a few of the revealing illustrations from newspapers, novels, and magazine covers of the day, alongside excerpts from the book.



Harrington Park Press

The cover of a special issue devoted to lesbians: Jils Garrine, Les Mesdam’messieurs, in L’Assiette au Beurre, March 2, 1912.

"Writers tried to define the cross-dressing phenomenon by using compound nouns and convoluted phrases: Woman-Man, woman masculinized by habit and tastes, or 'mesdam'messieurs' — which happened to be the title of a special issue of satirical magazine L’Assiette au Beurre devoted entirely to lesbians."


Harrington Park Press

"Rayon du Moulin-Rouge" / "Moulin Rouge Department" by Tony Minartz for “L’Article de Paris”/ “Parisian Specialty” in L’Assiette au Beurre, Feb. 8, 1902.

"The vast premises of the Moulin Rouge was famous for its can-can dancers, who kept the audience enthralled. It also had a dance floor where female couples often waltzed in one another’s arms. Tony Minartz depicted the tight embrace of women spinning round in an issue of satirical magazine L’Assiette au Beurre. If the drawing was not clear enough, the caption accompanying it spelled it out:

Article for intimate parties . . .

And to think that the guys,

Poor fellows, don’t realize

That we get by fine without them!"


Harrington Park Press

"Dark and Fair" by Tadeusz Styka (ca. 1908)

"According to the prevailing typology of hair color, a true lesbian was either a brunette or a redhead (red being the epitome of artificiality), and thus golden hair was left to the passive, willing victim. Marthe Barnède, nicknamed Madame Sappho, is 'a stunning brunette, with hair the color of deep shadow,' while Colette, her young and frail lover, is described as 'a pretty girl with lily-white skin and light blonde hair that crowned her pale ivory forehead with a riotous golden halo.'"


Harrington Park Press

"Petites Amies" / "Girlfriends" by Hanafusa Ittcho, an illustration for the novel Poupée Japonaise / Japanese Doll by Félicien Champsaur (1912 edition).

"The term 'inseparables' (which is also a French term for lovebirds) is the title of a chapter in Champsaur’s Poupée Japonaise (Japanese Doll). In the illustrated edition of 1912, a colored engraving by Hanafusa Ittcho called 'Petites Amies' (Girlfriends) represents two lovers’ hands joined like the obis fastening their kimonos, giving the impression that the women are literally tied together."



Harrington Park Press

Pierre Hérault, "L’amour qui n’ose pas dire son nom (The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name)" in Le Rire, Nov. 29, 1930.

"'Excuse me, young man, my wife has lost her sex, you wouldn’t have found it by any chance?' Le Rire was a successful French humor magazine published from October 1894 through the 1950s."


Harrington Park Press

Cover illustration by Étienne le Rallic for "Ces Dames de Lesbos" / "These Ladies of Lesbos" by Renée Dunan (1928).

"This little-known novelist retraced the history of sapphism through the ages. After an introduction focusing on Lesbos in antiquity, she backtracked to prehistory, swerved through Babylon, paused with the Amazon women, trekked through Corinth, returned to Lesbos, landed in Rome, paid a visit to the Ottoman sultan and the court of Louis XV, and finally arrived at her destination, the modern-day Lesbos of Hollywood, London, and Paris."


Harrington Park Press

"Faute de Venise—II y a le lac du Bois de Boulogne." Illustration by Joseph Kuhn-Régnier, in the satirical magazine Fantasio, Aug. 1, 1923.

"The Bois de Boulogne is a public park in Paris (bigger than Central Park) that was a reputed meeting place for lesbians, as well as lesbian prostitutes. Two fashionable ladies in a nighttime amorous adventure, with the less rarefied caption: 'If Venice is too far, there’s always the lake in the Bois de Boulogne.'"


Harrington Park Press

Raymond de la Nézière, "Quelques femmes à Bicyclette" / "Some Women on Bicycles" (detail), in La Vie Parisienne, Sept. 16, 1893.

"Parisian Life was a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863 and was published without interruption until 1970. In 1905, the magazine evolved into a mildly risqué erotic publication."



Harrington Park Press

Maurice Radiguet, cover for Mlles Saturne by Charles Virmaître (1898)

"Charles Virmaître had intended to give his study about sapphic Paris at the end of the nineteenth century the title 'Les Marchandes d’ail' (The Garlic Sellers). The expression is related to 'mangeuse d’ail' (garlic eater), considered an obscene euphemism for 'pussy eater.' He eventually titled the study 'Mlles Saturne' (derived from Saturnus, the Roman god of fertility). The cover, illustrated by Maurice Radiguet, retained a trace of this preliminary title, since a head of garlic is hanging above the doorway."


Harrington Park Press

"Boîtes de Nuit (Night Clubs)" by Zyg Brunner in L’Assiette au Beurre, Sept. 4, 1909

"The caption reads, 'Yes, my dear Prince, there are only two men who understand women in Paris: You . . . and I.'"


Harrington Park Press

"L’Embarquement pour Lesbos" / "The Departure for Lesbos" by Armand Vallée in Fantasio, June 1, 1929

"The two women in a drawing by Armand Vallée have the long-limbed charms of 1920s flappers, and their voyage 'to a different land / Where love, they say, is more beautiful' resembles a sporty jaunt."


Harrington Park Press

"Le Sémiramis-Bar" by Édouard Touraine, an illustration for Colette’s article “Le Sémiramis-Bar” in the magazine La Vie Parisienne, March 27, 1909.

"Sémiramis was the Queen of the Amazons, the mythological tribe of women warriors."



Harrington Park Press

"Lucie-berthe," retouched

"Ferdinand Bac, the illustrator of Femmes honnêtes! (Decent Women!), daringly drew the two lovers Lucie and Berthe embracing in such a way that their arms formed a bridge of flesh in the form of a hyphen, like the punctuation mark that joined their names."


Harrington Park Press

"Sexes autonomes: Les bars parallèles — Rétablissement" / "Autonomous Sexes: Parallel Bars — Restoration" by Gerda Wegener in Fantasio, July 15, 1925.

"Édouard Chimot, fascinated by this working-class and artistic neighborhood in Paris, sketched some of these female couples, many of whom were actually poor women living off prostitution. Jean-Louis Forain and Toulouse-Lautrec captured the habitués, both famous and anonymous, of the cafés that they also frequented. In the 1920s the glamorous Gerda Wegener gave these local dives a more sophisticated allure and called them Bars Parallèles / Parallel Bars, suggesting a pun with 'barres parallèles' and 'parallel bars' in gymnastics."


Harrington Park Press

"Gravelures de mode pour 1895" / "[Naughty] Highlights of the Fashions of 1895," by Albert Guillaume in Gil Blas illustré, Oct. 20, 1895.

"Cartoonists took aim at a presumptuousness that they considered as sacrilegious as it was ridiculous. In one of his comic sketches Albert Guillaume focused on eccentric women who took their fashion cues from men’s wardrobes. One panel has the image of an intrepid-looking woman, a cigar in her mouth, in men’s evening dress: a coat and tails, a starched shirtfront, and a high collar.

Below is the caption, 'The Two-for-One—The Latest Fabulous Outfit for Dinner Parties. Does Not Wear Out. Ground Floor at the Louvre Department Store.'”


Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France won the Goldie award for Anthology/Collections (Creative Non-Fiction) from the Golden Crown Literary Society. A previous version of this post misstated the name of the award and the organization.