Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek Uncovers an Intricate Visual History of Gay Relationships

The show reveals how American artists as a whole have explored human sexuality

“Walt Whitman is the founding spirit of this show,” says Ward. During the Civil War, Whitman, whose poetry collection Leaves of Grass contains themes of free love, worked as a nurse in the Patent Office Building, which is now the National Portrait Gallery. Thomas Eakins took this photograph a year before the poet’s death in 1891. Walt Whitman by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In the late 19th century, sporting events that glorified masculinity rose in popularity. College football, rowing and boxing celebrated the fit and healthy physique of the athlete. Here, Eakins plays with social norms by portraying a scantily clad boxer instead of a nude female as the object of an all-male crowd’s gaze. The boxer is the 22-year-old featherweight Billy Smith, who was a close, devoted friend to the artist. Salutat by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In this 1917 canvas, Marsden Hartley memorializes a man he fell in love with, a German soldier named Karl von Freyburg, who was killed during World War I. “Gays and lesbians were particularly attuned to abstraction because of the care with which they had to present themselves in society,” says Ward. “Their lives had to be coded to hide themselves from repressive or hostile forces, yet they also had to leave keys both to assert their identity and to link up with other members of the community.” Von Freyburg’s initials, his age at death his position in the cavalry unit are all cautiously hidden in this abstraction, Painting No. 47, Berlin. Painting No. 47, Berlin by Marsden Hartley. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Romaine Brooks was both an artist and patron of the arts. In this 1923 self-portrait, she depicts herself in hyper-masculine clothing. “I think the element of cross-dressing has had an appeal in the lesbian community,” Ward says. “Brooks abandons a stereotypically female look for a combination of items that would signal how she was crossing gender and sexual lines.” Self Portrait by Romaine Brooks. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Janet Flanner was an American living in Paris with her lover Solita Solano and together they traveled in the most fashionable gay social circles. Flanner wrote a regular column for the New Yorker that gave readers a coded glimpse of the Parisian “in crowd.” This 1923 portrait, Flanner’s masks are a symbol of the multiple disguises that she wears, one for private life, and one for public life. Janet Flanner by Berenice Abbott. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
This 1942 portrait captures artist Marsden Hartley mourning the death of another man that Hartley admired. A shadowy man haunts the background of this portrait, taken by photographer George Platt Lynes in 1942, alluding to the loves of Hartley’s life that were lost and unspoken. Marsden Hartley by Geoge Platt Lynes. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Stricken with AIDS, Robert Maplethorpe casts himself in this 1988 self-portrait as the figure of death. “What he is doing,” Ward says, “is refusing to accept our pity. He is refusing to be defined by us: poor gay man, poor dying gay man. He is also dying with dignity, turning himself into the King of Death. He is owning his status. And what he is telling us is that we are all going to die. We are all mortal and this is the fate that awaits us all. And I also think he is making a statement that he is going to survive after death because of his work as an artist. He is transcending death through art.” Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait by Robert Maplethorpe. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
As AIDS raged through gay communities across the United States beginning in the 1980s, Haring’s 1989 devastating canvas, entitled Unfinished Painting, mourns the loss of so many. Haring himself died from AIDS on February 16, 1990, a year that saw the incredible toll—18,447 deaths—of the disease. Unfinished Painting by Keith Haring. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
In this 1986 canvas, Andy Warhol plays with the concept of camouflage and the idea that portraiture is a means of masking oneself. Here he is hidden, yet in plain sight. Camouflage Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
When Ellen DeGeneres publicly acknowledged her lesbianism in 1997, it was a landmark event. Besides defying Hollywood’s convention of rarely publicly acknowledging her homosexuality, coming out gave her a degree of control over her life. "For me,” DeGeneres said in a 1997 interview with Diane Sawyer, “this has been the most freeing experience, because people can’t hurt me anymore.” Ellen DeGeneres, Kauai, Hawaii by Annie Leibovitz. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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