‘Lesbian Decadence’ Explores Lesbianism in Late 19th Century Art and Literature

Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France is a collection of late 19th century/early 20th century artwork depicting lesbians, by Nicole G. Albert and published by Harrington Park Press.

Originally written in French, the book’s English translation recently won a Goldie (Golden Crown Literary Society Award) for Anthology/Collections. From the publisher: 

“Lesbian Decadence” delves into the fascination with lesbianism held by followers of the Decadent Movement, a late 19th century artistic and literary movement that basically spurned and mocked industrialized society and instead celebrated self-indulgence, drugs (hello, opium and absinthe!), perversion, crude humor, and sensuality.

Lesbianism during the Decadent Movement was referred to as “sapphism”—after the archaic Greek poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC) from the island of Lesbos, best known for her poems about—and a symbol of—love and desire between women. Later, a slippage occurred from the person (Sappho) to the place (Lesbos) and by the 1920’s the term “lesbian” was the preferred term, even though it was tarred with negative connotations in the 19th century.

Though Sappho was revered as the great ancient poet that she historically was, in the late 19th century her sexuality became a point of keen fascination and debate.

Her poetry was now considered “extraordinary” and she was more often than not portrayed as a seductress, hypersexual lover of women, and patron saint of lesbians.

Though Decadent writers were writing about lesbians, it was often from a less than positive point of view. Lesbians were seen as exotic, mysterious, oversexed, predatory perverts. Portrayals straddled ridicule and depravity, with one writer going so far as to say, “Sapphism is one of the symptoms of the end of civilization, akin to the decadence of the Roman Empire.”

To read more about “Lesbian Decadence”, by author Nicole G. Albert, and to order the book, visit Harrington Park Press.