Queer Artists that Revolutionized Art History

Written by Savannah James

Queerness has always been a part of art history but often gets sideswept from traditional timelines. Up until the early twentieth century, many LGBTQ+ artists kept their sexuality hidden. Art served as a solace for them to explore gender and identity, express felt societal alienation, and test heteronormativity safely.

That said, the rise of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements inspired many artists to openly communicate about the queer experience through their work. These demonstrative practices have shaped art’s place in society, actively decentering academic importance and stressing the necessity of self-expression, especially by marginalized people groups.

In honor of Pride Month, we are highlighting just some of the many lives of queer artists from the last century who have revolutionized art history by challenging traditional perspectives and expectations.

Romaine Brooks (1874 – 1970)

Despite having been contemporaries with the likes of Picasso and Matisse, Romaine Brooks is a lesser known name in art history. Rather than running with the bohemé of 1920s Paris, Brooks surrounded herself with a group of elite queer women expats, many of whom served as subjects for her striking, predominantly grayscale, portraits. Through art she was able to freely explore themes of identity, gender norms, and female intimacy at a time where painting was dominated by the male gaze.

Portrait of Romaine Brooks

Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954) 

Claude Cahun was a French experimental photographer and writer in the early 20th century. Cahun, who identified as non-binary, used their androgynous appearance as a canvas to play with gender expectations. Using theatrical makeup, props, and costume they created ethereal images that disrupted the then strict traditional gender norms. Cahun often collaborated with their lifetime lover and artistic partner, Marcel Moore. Most of Cahun’s work was destroyed during WWII following their arrest as a resistance activist. However, what remains is still revered today for highlighting the complexity of gender and identity, especially when it is typically imposed on a subject by a viewer.

Portrait of Claude Cahun

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Brushing shoulders with Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Dadaism, Robert Rauschenberg pushed the boundaries of traditional painting in the mid-century. By incorporating found objects and sculptural elements onto a canvas, Rauschenberg created what he is now most famous for, his ‘combines.’ These works not only defied the technicalities of painting, but were also deeply intimate, exploring themes of memory, human-material relationships, and romance. He often coded his works with personal symbolism that spoke to his experience as a gay man.

The Bed (1955) by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)

Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer and mixed media artist. His early collage works reflected his conflicting identities of growing up as a Catholic boy into a gay man, incorporating suggestive photos of religious statues and male pornography. As he matured as an artist, Mapplethorpe began taking his own photos, shooting everything from celebrity friends to the BDSM subculture existing in New York in the 1960s and 70s. His art was not only vital to the exploration of his own sexuality, but also brought light to the nuances of male eroticism that were often misunderstood by mass culture at the time.

Untitled, 1973 by Robert Mapplethorpe

Keith Haring (1958-1990)

Having entered the art world by way of graffiti in the 1980s, Keith Haring quickly became a popular artist in the New York scene due to his jovial, animated figures and social activism messaging. Haring was openly gay and used his work to advocate for safe sex and create awareness around AIDS, the illness that ended up taking his life. His work today is still associated with the AIDS movement and various other sects humanitarian work.

Silence = Death (1989) by Keith Haring

Nancy Andrews (b 1963)

Nancy Andrews’ career started by capturing the everyday lives of gay and lesbian Americans throughout the 1980s and 90s. Despite that many were closeted about their sexuality, Andrews worked with those willing to share the intimacies of their everyday lives. Her aim was to accentuate the humanness of her subjects, freeing them from social persecution.  Many of these portraits were published in her book, Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America (1989–1993), which includes both photos and interviews with her subjects. 

The Prom Queen, 1991 by Nancy Andrews

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971)

Mickalene Thomas is a contemporary mixed-media artist best known for her glamorous paintings of women. Often referencing famous subjects of western art like Manet’s Olympia or Ingres’ Odalisque, Thomas replaces traditionally white subjects with Black women as central figures. Each portrait is a celebration of femininity and Thomas’s personal experience as a Black lesbian. Using rhinestones, enamel, and psychedelic color palettes, she treats her models as respectable royalty subverting the long-standing art historical presence of the male gaze.


by Mickalene Thomas