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These activists and innovators have paved the way with their paintings, photographs, and sculptures.

The works of artists from French 19th-century animal painter Rosa Bonheur to American pop artist Andy Warhol have changed the course of art history. And photographers Nancy Andrews, Sunil Gupta, and Zanele Muholi use their images to advocate for and celebrate their queer communities.

Take a self-guided tour of LGBTQ+ artists on your next visit—most of these works are on view at the National Gallery.

1.   Sunil Gupta

Sunil Gupta, Untitled #1, 1988, printed 2020

Not on view
Sunil Gupta, Untitled #1, 1988, printed 2020, inkjet print, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund, 2022.23.1

London-based photographer Sunil Gupta has spent much of his career chronicling the beauty and struggle of his own gay community.

In 1988 Gupta created ‘Pretended’ Family Relationships. The series of photographs was his response to Section 28, a group of laws that prohibited promoting “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in the United Kingdom. Gupta’s works combine portraits of gay couples, some staged and others real, with images from protests against Section 28. Poetry by Stephen Dodd, Gupta’s partner at the time, appears on panels between the two images.

 

2.   Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Color Panels for a Large Wall, 1978

On view: East Building Atrium
Ellsworth Kelly, Color Panels for a Large Wall, 1978, oil on canvas, Purchased with funds provided by The Glenstone Foundation, Mitchell P. Rales, Founder, 2005.87.1

Walk into our East Building atrium and you will see an enormous wall filled with a rainbow of rectangular paintings. When artist Ellsworth Kelly created Color Panels for a Large Wall in 1978, he returned to color after a period of painting in black and white. The 18 canvases are variations on the six primary and secondary colors, plus two black panels. These are not individual paintings—they are one work, fulfilling Kelly’s lifelong dream of making artworks for “large walls.”

Kelly first made Color Panels for a bank. When the work entered the National Gallery’s collection in 2005, the artist changed it for the East Building. In the end, he preferred the new layout of the panels to his original design.

Kelly was an openly gay man—one of his long-term partners was fellow artist Robert Indiana.

Learn more about Ellsworth Kelly's life.

 

3.   Marie Laurencin

Marie Laurencin, In the Park, 1924

On view: East Building, Ground Level - Gallery 103D
Marie Laurencin, In the Park, 1924, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.158

Marie Laurencin, Girl with a Dove, 1928

On view: East Building, Ground Level - Gallery 103D
Marie Laurencin, Girl with a Dove, 1928, oil on linen, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.35

French painter Marie Laurencin did some cubist painting and exhibited with artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. But she became famous for works like In the Park. These paintings show ghostly women with bright white skin and dark eyes wearing pastel outfits. They are always set against abstract backgrounds.

Living in Paris during the late 19th century, Laurencin was part of a community of avant-garde (new and experimental) artists and creatives who were relatively open about their sexuality. Laurencin had relationships with both men and women. She was a regular at salons held by American author Natalie Clifford Barney. Barney, a lesbian, welcomed other women like herself. One of Laurencin’s first patrons was lesbian American author Gertrude Stein.

 

4.   Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family), 1962

On view: East Building, Upper Level - Gallery 407D
Andy Warhol, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family), 1962, silkscreen on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Howard Adams and Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1982.96.1

You can see several works by famous American pop artist Andy Warhol in our galleries, including his iconic Green Marilyn. Look across the room and you may recognize the artist’s signature style: silkscreens of repeated photographs. This work is a tribute to Warhol’s friend, artist Robert Rauschenberg.

The two found a common interest in using art to comment on popular culture. Warhol’s silkscreen process of transferring photographs onto canvas inspired Rauschenberg, who had already been making transfers onto paper.

The inspiration went both ways—Warhol made a series of works using photographs of Rauschenberg and his family. The title, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Rauschenberg Family), comes from a book by James Agee with images by Walker Evans, one of Rauschenberg’s favorite photographers.

Warhol lived openly as a gay man. His boyfriends, including John Giorno and Jed Johnson, often worked with him on his art.

 

5.   Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, Black Painting, 1952

On view: East Building, Concourse - Auditorium Lobby
Robert Rauschenberg, Black Painting, 1952, oil and newspaper on canvas, Gift of Jasper Johns to the National Gallery of Art for the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection, 2013.140.1

After serving in the Navy, Robert Rauschenberg began a career as an artist. He eventually settled in New York City and found a job designing window displays for department stores, working with artist Jasper Johns under the name Matson Jones. Rauschenberg met Johns in 1952, and the two became romantic partners and artistic collaborators. Their relationship lasted until 1961.

Rauschenberg experimented with using different materials in his artworks. Adding newspaper to black paintings led to his “combines” like Black Painting—works that didn’t fit neatly into either the painting or sculpture categories. Rauschenberg gave this work to Johns. It entered the National Gallery’s collection more than 50 years later in 2013.

 

6.   Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas, Melody: Back, 2011

Not on view
Mickalene Thomas, Melody: Back, 2011, diffusion transfer print (Polaroid), Charina Endowment Fund and Peter Edwards and Rose Gutfeld Fund, 2020.3.1

African American artist Mickalene Thomas often invites models to pose in her built sets. While the photographs Thomas takes form the basis of her celebrated rhinestone-lined paintings, they have also become finished works in their own right.

Melody: Back shows a Black woman mimicking the pose of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Grand Odalisque. An odalisque was an enslaved woman, often part of a harem. In Thomas’ photograph the woman holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand; in Ingres’s version, the woman holds a peacock fan. Thomas, a Black queer woman making a portrait of a Black woman, is reframing a work in which a white, European man has exoticized his subject. The tattoo on the model’s lower back reads “Only God Can Judge Me.” Melody: Back also refers to African art: the mix of patterned fabrics recalls images by Seydou Keïta.

 

7.   Roni Horn

Roni Horn, Opposite of White, v. 2 (Large) (A), 2006-2007

On view: East Building, Mezzanine - Terrace
Roni Horn, Opposite of White, v. 2 (Large) (A), 2006-2007, solid cast black glass with fire-polished top, Gift of the Collectors Committee, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, John and Mary Pappajohn, Denise and Andrew Saul, Constance R. Caplan, Lenore S. and Bernard A. Greenberg Fund, Kyle J. and Sharon Krause, and Mitchell and Emily Rales, 2015.63.1

Nonbinary American artist Roni Horn has been making cast-glass sculptures like Opposite of White, v. 2 (Large) (A) since the 1990s. Horn pours molten glass into a mold where it takes three to four months to solidify. While the top is so perfectly smooth that it almost looks like it’s still liquid, you can see the rough marks from the mold on the side of this sculpture. The work is heavier than it looks, weighing around 4,500 pounds. Horn has made other versions of this sculpture that are paired with transparent white doubles (hence the title).

Horn’s works often explore doubles (pairs that look identical)—as well as opposites like heavy and light, solid and fluid, transparent and opaque. The artist is also interested in how objects are affected by what is around them. The sculpture changes depending on the light, and at the right angle, the polished surface reflects its viewer.

 

8.   Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi, Zimaseka 'Zim' Salusalu, Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011

Not on view
Zanele Muholi, Zimaseka 'Zim' Salusalu, Gugulethu, Cape Town, 2011, gelatin silver print, Gift of Joshua and Sara Slocum, 2021.111.1

South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s series Faces and Phases focuses on their country’s Black lesbian and queer community. In the black-and-white photographs, posed subjects look directly at the camera. The work is “a space for people to be visible, respected, and recognized” Muholi says.

Muholi identifies as a visual activist. The series is part of their larger efforts to document and celebrate the South African queer community and its strength in the face of continuing hate crimes and discrimination.

 

9.   Robert Indiana

Robert Indiana, AMOR, conceived 1998, fabricated 2006

On view: Sculpture Garden - NE
Robert Indiana, AMOR, conceived 1998, fabricated 2006, polychrome aluminum, Gift of Simon and Gillian Salama-Caro in memory of Ruth Klausner, 2012.27.1

You may have seen other versions of this sculpture: four stacked letters spelling out “LOVE.” But did you know it started as a Christmas card? When the Museum of Modern Art invited American artist Robert Indiana to design one in 1965, he recalled a church decorated with the words “God is Love.” Indiana’s message of love came shortly after heartbreak—his relationship with artist Ellsworth Kelly had ended just a year earlier. The two had been together since 1956.

After making the card, Indiana spread love on prints, paintings, and sculptures. In this later version, he swapped out LOVE for the word’s Spanish (or Latin) translation, AMOR.

 

10.   Marsden Hartley

Marsden Hartley, Berlin Abstraction, 1914/1915

Not on view
Marsden Hartley, Berlin Abstraction, 1914/1915, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund), 2014.79.21

American painter Marsden Hartley's Berlin Abstraction is a coded tribute to his lover. Symbols throughout the work refer to German lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, who died during World War I. The red number four stands for the Fourth Regiment he served in. The red-and-white checkerboard recalls Freyburg’s love of chess. The black cross in a red circle with a white border is likely an abstract Iron Cross medal for bravery, which Freyburg was awarded after his death.

Hartley was never openly gay. He claimed that the series of “German Officer” portraits (that this painting is part of) had no veiled meanings. The references to his lover were only revealed after Hartley’s death.

 

11.   Gwen John

Gwen John, The Convalescent, c. 1915-1925

On view: East Building, Ground Level - Gallery 103C
Gwen John, The Convalescent, c. 1915-1925, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection, 1994.59.15

Welsh artist Gwen John was little known during her life. Her gloomy portraits of solitary women (sometimes accompanied by cats) have only been fully appreciated in recent years. The Convalescent shows a woman reading from a paper she holds in her lap. This wicker chair appears in several of John’s paintings, and the model is in about 50 of them, but her identity is unknown.

John lived in France for most of her adult life and had relationships with both women and men. She was a muse and romantic partner to French sculptor Auguste Rodin. She also studied with James McNeill Whistler.

 

12.   Nancy Andrews

Nancy Andrews, Roberta Achtenberg, 1993

Not on view
Nancy Andrews, Roberta Achtenberg, 1993, gelatin silver print, Gift of Nancy Andrews and Annie O'Neill, 2022.122.45

American photographer and reporter Nancy Andrews published Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America in 1993. The work celebrates the everyday lives and extraordinary achievements of queer Americans she met across the country. Andrews described it as “the book I looked for when I began to realize I was gay.”

This photograph shows Roberta Achtenberg, an attorney and civil rights advocate—and the first openly gay federal appointee confirmed by the US Senate. The hearing for her position lasted days, with more than nine hours of obstruction and intense questioning from senators who opposed her lesbian identity and history of activism.

 

13.   Grant Wood

Grant Wood, Haying, 1939

Not on view
Grant Wood, Haying, 1939, oil on canvas on paperboard mounted on hardboard, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Strasburger, 1982.7.1

Grant Wood, New Road, 1939

Not on view
Grant Wood, New Road, 1939, oil on canvas on paperboard mounted on hardboard, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Strasburger, 1982.7.2

Iowa artist Grant Wood gained national fame in 1930 for American Gothic, still one of the best known American paintings. In 1939 he made New Road and Haying, a pair of idealized midwestern landscapes.

That same year Wood was the subject of a scandal. He had been experimenting for several years with printmaking. In 1939 he made a work for Associated American Artists, which sold low-cost prints through the mail. Sultry Night showed a nude male farmhand bathing himself by moonlight. The US Postal Service banned the print, and a colleague at the University of Iowa tried (but failed) to have Wood fired on moral grounds. Wood died of cancer only a few years later. His life as a gay man was not widely discussed until recently.

 

14.   Frida Kahlo

Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo, c. 1944

Not on view
Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo, c. 1944, gelatin silver print, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Mr. Robert Lennon and Mr. Ramon Osuna in Memory of Gene Baro.), 2015.19.4322

Maybe the best-known Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo is famous for her vibrant and fantastical paintings, many of them self-portraits. While she was married to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, Kahlo was bisexual and known to have both men and women as lovers. Some of her paintings, such as Two Nudes in a Forest, explore these themes.

Kahlo was part of a community of creatives and thinkers in Mexico City. Through that group she became close friends with photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo, who took this photograph. Kahlo looks “through” a mirrored archway. The double image recalls her Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas), which shows two versions of the artist holding hands.

 

15.   Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur, Cattle in the Auvergne, 1867

Not on view
Rosa Bonheur, Cattle in the Auvergne, 1867, black and white chalk with stumping and touches of pastel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 2017.40.1

Successful French artist Rosa Bonheur made paintings and sculptures of cows, horses, sheep, and other creatures. She was so committed to her craft that she asked the French government for permission to wear pants, arguing that that would make it easier for her to study animals.

In the 19th century, Bonheur could not present openly as a lesbian. But she lived for more than 40 years with fellow painter Nathalie Micas—and, after Micas’s death, with American photographer and painter Anna Klumpke. The three are buried side by side in Paris.

 

May 31, 2023