This Pride Month, we’re taking a look at LGBTQ icons in poster history. Some of them kept their private affairs under wraps while others were quite open with their sexuality at a time when this was not as acceptable. From Lautrec’s cabaret stars to Josephine Baker, these women defied the norms and remain celebrated heroines today.
The following posters are included in our Rare Posters Auction on July 20, 2021.
15 x 19 3/4 in./38 x 50.2 cm
“A lithograph from 1892 depicts La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge with a woman on her arm. Identified as the performer’s ‘sister,’ the figure is more likely the dancer Môme Fromage, with whom she had a romantic relationship. At the time, lesbians often explained their cohabitation by saying they were sisters. [Jane] Avril later recalled that La Goulue lived with Môme Fromage, ‘a basset hound made woman… One day, an eavesdropper wanted to know the truth about their relationship… La Goulue, taking modesty, denied being lesbian,’ and Môme Fromage threw a fit, shouting, ‘Louise, how can you deny that you love me!’ In the painting La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, made contemporaneously with the lithograph, we are spun around to the front of the same scene and see La Goulue linking arms with the rotund Môme Fromage, on her right, and May Milton, a well-known and openly lesbian performer, on her left, further suggesting that the ‘sister’ in the lithograph is actually her lover” (The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec : Prints and Posters from the Museum of Modern Art, p. 24).
24 1/8 x 31 in./61.3 x 78.8 cm
With a banjo-playing clown as a remarque in the lower right corner, this distinctive version of May Milton was printed in an edition of just 25 copies. “Extremely rare,” says Wittrock (p. 788). An English dancer at the Moulin-Rouge, May Milton was in an affair with May Belfort (see No. 457). Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of her is so subtly bizarre that Picasso included it in the background of his early painting “The Bath” (1901). “Milton is shown in a seemingly impossible position,” Ebria Feinblatt writes. “Lautrec so twists the position of Milton’s right leg that, instead of a back kick, the foot emerges from the side. At the same time, this pose answers the artist’s need to continue the unbroken, undulating pattern that starts with the wavy hair hanging down to her puffed shoulder sleeve… the undeniable presence of the figure [is] arresting” (Wagner, p. 27). This is hand-signed and numbered 6 from an edition of 25 copies, and extremely rare!
24 x 30 7/8 in./61.5 x 78.5 cm
This limited edition print includes Lautrec’s cat remarque, and is one of 25 copies. “May Belfort, whom [Lautrec] represented in at least ten works, had gained a reputation for corrupt innocence by appearing onstage dressed as a baby holding a black kitten in her arms, and ‘miaowing or bleating’ her popular song, ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,’ whose lines had a double meaning which was not lost on the French-speaking audience: ‘I’ve got a pussycat, I’m very fond of that’” (Frey, p. 382). This would have been particularly amusing for the audience, as Belfort was in an openly lesbian affair with the English dancer May Milton. According to Wittrock, this is the “extremely rare” version: number 6 of 25 hand-signed and numbered copies with the cat remarque.
23 3/8 x 31 1/4 in./59.5 x 79.2 cm
Loïe Fuller is famous for her revolutionary serpentine dance, but she also championed another corner of the world: feminism and lesbianism. She was briefly married to Colonel William Hayes, but after their separation in 1892, she only dated women. She fell in love with her student and collaborator Gabrielle “Gab” Bloch, who became her lifelong partner—they lived together for 23 years, until Loïe’s death in 1928. They joined Natalie Barney’s salon of lesbian artists, and Loïe became a mentor to young female dancers. Bloch, known professionally as Gab Sorère, was a French art promoter, set designer, filmmaker, and choreographer.
In one of the most iconic images of Loïe Fuller, Pal catches both aspects of Fuller’s dance spectacle: the upsweep of the arms in her draperies, like the Winged Victory of Samothrace in kinetic action, along with the illusion of fire created by her lighting effects. The rarest of Pal’s five Loïe Fuller posters for the Folies-Bergère, it’s also the most sensuous, illuminating the dancer bare-breasted, yet whirling in fabric.
28 3/8 x 83 3/4 in./72 x 212.7 cm
Sarah Bernhardt was a Belle Époque celebrity and a sexual icon. She had numerous relationships with men and was married to Jacques Damala for 7 years. But it is perhaps her relationship with Post-Impressionist painter Louise Abbéma that is most interesting—and most significant. When she was just 18, Louise painted her first portrait of Sarah, which was exhibited at the 1876 Paris Salon. The two formed a lifelong friendship and collaborated creatively. They were also, most likely, lovers. “The growing intimacy between Louise and Sarah did not go unobserved, for Abbéma was a mannish young woman who sported a shirt and tie, wore her hair short, and flaunted her passionate attachment to Sarah. It is not known whether Sarah returned this love, or, indeed, whether she had a penchant for women, although it is generally assumed that she did, for with all her seductive femininity, Sarah liked to play the man, offstage and on… In any event, whatever the favors she granted Louise Abbéma, they were potent enough to keep the painter happily in thrall for almost fifty years” (The Divine Sarah, by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, p. 134).
23 1/4 x 30 3/4 in./59 x 78 cm
Although Josephine Baker was married to four different men—and often played the role of a straight woman in love with a man—she also had a number of “lady lovers,” as she called them. Girls in show business often lived together to save costs; many suffered abuse from their producers and directors, which led the girls to comfort one another. Maude Russell, a colleague of Josephine’s, said, “The girls needed tenderness, so we had girl friendships, the famous lady lovers. But lesbians weren’t well accepted in show business—they were called bull dykers. I guess we were bisexual, is what you would call us today.” Josephine had several relationships with women, including Colette, a French novelist and performer, and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Josephine was uncomfortable with announcing her bisexuality and even denied it to the point of appearing homophobic. Here, we see her playing a traditional straight role in the film “Zouzou.”