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‘The First Homosexuals’ Exhibition At Wrightwood 659 Explores Early Understandings Of Homosexuality And Its Evolution

"The First Homosexuals" starts at 1869 when the term was coined in Europe and tracks how understandings of homosexuality evolved from then until 1930.

Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave.
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LINCOLN PARK — A new exhibition in Lincoln Park explores early understandings of same-sex desire since the word “homosexual” was coined in 1869.

“The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930” draws on more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and film clips to explore how early homosexuals understood themselves and how society perceived them.

It’s a two-part exhibition with the first section on display at the Wrightwood 659 gallery, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., through Dec. 17. Part two is still being developed and will be on display in 2025.

Alphawood Foundation Chicago is presenting the exhibit through Alphawood Exhibitions.

“‘The First Homosexuals’ is an international project of an incredible scale,” said Chirag G. Badlani, executive director of Alphawood Foundation Chicago. “We are thrilled that the community can experience an important exhibition like this at Wrightwood 659 —given the content, it otherwise might not be seen.”

Tickets are $15 and available online.

The exhibition is being developed by a team of 23 international scholars. They are led by art historian Jonathan D. Katz, University of Pennsylvania professor of practice in the history of art and gender, sexuality and women’s studies, with associate curator Johnny Willis.

Part one of the exhibition is organized into nine sections on the second floor of Wrightwood 659.

The first section, “Before Homosexuality,” features 19th century works showing how same-sex eroticism was portrayed unselfconsciously before the term “homosexual” was coined in Europe. A highlight is a print depicting a sexual act between two men by Hokusai, the ukiyo-e master of Japan’s Edo period.

In “Couples,” visitors will find a painting by French artist Louise Abbéma depicting her in masculine clothing with her lover, actress Sarah Bernhardt, on a leisurely boat ride. Another set of paintings include American artist Edith Emerson’s depiction of her lover, Violet Oakley, who returned the favor with an oil study of Emerson.

Another one of Oakley’s paintings on display ran in the 1903 issue of the popular The Century Magazine, portraying heaven as populated by young women in flowing gold and white robes.

The third section, “Between Genders,” has a painting by Gerda Wegener depicting one of the first modern transgender women, Lili Elbe.

Other works include a postcard of the French chanteuse Josephine Baker in male evening attire, photos of the Norwegian Marie Høeg dressed as a man in a variety of poses, and a photo of French surrealist Claude Cahun in a meditative position with a shaved head that creates an androgynous appearance.

The “Pose” section displays a famous portrait by Mexican artist Roberto Montenegro of his friend Chucho Reyes, an antique and antiquities dealer. Reyes has a limp wrist, tilted chin and amused smile, which are common tropes of queer codes even today.

Credit: Provided/Wrightwood 659
(From left) Gerda Wegener’s “Reclining in Nude,” James Gardiner’s untitled piece, and Roberto Montenegro’s “Retrato de un anticuario o Retrato de Chucho Reyes y autorretrato.”

The fourth section, “Archetypes,” is anchored around Thomas Eakins’s “Salutat, 1898,” a painting that focuses attention on an erotic part of the young male body. Throughout this section, viewers can track the ideal of male beauty’s evolution from 19th century ideals of youthful male beauty to a more masculinized ideal of perfection.

The next section, “Desire,” brings together works of art that are stylistically varied, but alike in depicting same-gender sex or emphasizing parts of the body for erotic effect. It has erotica from China, Japan, Iran and India, as well as figure drawings by French artist Jane Poupelet that focus on the rear view of female models.

“Colonizing” reflects on various dynamics, including the Euro-centric definition of early homosexuality, which often clashed with Indigenous forms, and the Western perception that the East was decadent.

Pieces in that section include Sri Lankan painter David Paynter’s modernist oil “L’après midi, 1935”; F. Holland Day’s double exposure photograph, “The Vision, (Orpheus Scene), 1907”; and a propaganda piece created by Japanese nationals in Russian territory to demoralize Russian troops during the Russo-Japanese War.

In “Public and Private,” viewers will find Charles Demuth’s morning-after scene of three young men in pajamas and underwear in a stylish home, lesbian genre scenes set in Eastern Europe, and Marsden Hartley’s “Berlin Ante War, 1914,” which is a painting charting life, death, faith, sunrise and sunset in symbolic forms and colors.

The final section is “Past and Future,” which centers on a little-known painting by Finnish artist Magnus Enckell that reverses the classical myth of Leda and the Swan by illustrating a nude man strangling Zeus in the form of a swan.

Other works in the last section include what’s likely to be the earliest use of the rainbow as a symbol of same-sex love, photographs by Wilhelm von Gloeden that combine classical ruins with Sicilian youth, and Paul Avril’s color lithograph “Hadrian and Antinous, 1906,” which portrays the desire to acknowledge same-sex precedents in ancient history.

Also running at Wrightwood 659 is “Michiko Itatani: Celestial Stages,” an exhibition of 65 works surveying the Chicago artist’s large-scale paintings, and “We Shall Defy,” which tells the story of renowned Bangladeshi photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, who was imprisoned for 107 days after criticizing his government.

Wrightwood 659 is a private, non-collecting exhibition space dedicated to socially engaged art and architecture. It opened in 2018 and hosts public exhibitions during its Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer seasons.

Wrightwood 659 is open noon-7 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays.

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