Paris Gay History and Art Tour

Everybody knows that Paris is a fantastic city to visit, with fascinating historic neighborhoods, amazing museums, fabulous shopping, and of course spectacular food. But many people seem not to realize that Paris is also one of the greatest cities of gay history. But so it is: I think Paris has so many other great sides that people almost overlook this one.  France was the first modern country to decriminalize homosexuality—in 1798, almost 2 centuries before the US. And from that time on, it was a relatively free city for gay life, and gay themes appeared more and more openly in French culture. This is why there are so many great gay writers in French literature, including names like Proust, Cocteau, and Colette. It is also why so many gay writers from English-speaking countries spent large parts of their lives there, including Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and James Baldwin. And it’s why Out Professionals and Oscar Wilde Tours have chosen to launch our collaboration with a Paris gay history and art tour.

Gay Palaces

Louis XIV's Gay Brother--Paris Gay History and Art
“Monsieur,” Louis XIV’s Gay Brother

In fact, gay history is a great theme to follow around Paris, a good theme to organize a short visit around—or at least, another fun thing to add into the mix of interests that guide you around the city (along with the search for the best baguette, for instance). There are lots of places where you can follow gay history’s trail. Across from the Louvre, for instance, the Palais-Royal has a lot of gay history. Among other things, it was the Paris residence of Louis XIV’s gay (or perhaps bi) and gender-bending younger brother Philippe I, Duc d’Orléans (generally known simply as ‘Monsieur’); it is also here that Colette lived for the last 2 decades of her life and produced her most interesting writing about lesbians (The Pure and the Impure) as well as her best book on her other favorite theme, courtesans, Gigi.

But there are two places in Paris that, in my view, make for the richest gay history experience: the Louvre museum and Père Lachaise cemetery. Both are of course fabulous for many reasons, but both are also overwhelming, and (as at the Met in New York) following gay themes gives you a nice way to organize a visit, taking you to some of the most important sights and also a few less known but interesting ones.

Gay Tombs

Cambacérès's tomb--Paris Gay History and Art
Cambacérès’s tomb at Père Lachaise cemetery

I suppose I should say a few extra words about Père Lachaise, because it’s a little out of the way, and many people don’t get there until they’ve been in Paris a number of times. But it really shouldn’t be missed. First of all, it is a very charming old cemetery and has wonderful views of Paris (because a large part of it is on a hill). It also contains the graves of an amazing variety of people. Whatever you’re interested in, you can find people that matter to you at Père Lachaise. For opera queens, for instance, there are the graves of Rossini, Bellini, and Maria Callas (also Edith Piaf!). But gay history is really prominent, as Oscar Wilde is probably the cemetery’s most famous denizen (aside from Jim Morrison?).  And it is also quite well-known that Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’ joint tomb is there. But there is plenty more, including Proust and Colette, also Rosa Bonheur—whom people who have taken my tour of the Met will recognize—and many more. Just as one example: Jean-Jacques Régis de Cambacérès. There’s a name I imagine none of my readers will know, but he’s an important man. He is to some extent the father of gay liberation. Cambacérès was a gay aristocrat who survived the Revolution and became second consul under Napoleon. He was one of the key authors of the Code Napoléon—the law code that forms the basis for French law today as well as law in many other European countries—and it is generally believed that he is responsible for the fact that the Code followed the Revolutionary law code in leaving out homosexuality, while many others wanted laws against sodomy to be reintroduced.

Gay Art Museum

Da Vinci's St. John the Baptist--Paris Gay History and Art
Da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist

The Louvre is also an astonishingly gay museum. This might be because it has such important collections from ancient Greece—where some kinds of same-sex love were considered praiseworthy—and ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance, where they were also at often smiled at. The Louvre’s massive Greek vase collection is particularly rich in homoerotic themes, as are its Roman and Italian collections. For instance, it has not one (like the Met) but four busts of Emperor Hadrian’s boy-toy Antinous, who was declared a god after his death. And it has homoerotic works by the two biggest Renaissance gay geniuses:  Michelangelo’s orgasmic-looking Dying Slave and Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist, portrayed as a sexy youth and modeled on Leonardo’s favorite (though difficult) assistant, a boy he nicknamed Salaì (little devil). Indeed, one should probably also include the Mona Lisa in this category, as some scholars think it was at least in part modeled on Salaì as well. But interestingly, the homoerotic side of the collection continues into later cultures, because there are a number of strikingly homoerotic works from Revolutionary and Napoleonic France—works in which the artists use the prestige of the Classical cultures to allow them to express homosexual interests. For instance, in the French sculpture collection, there is an 18th century sculpture of the gay couple from Virgil’s Aeneid. This is a fascinating work, because there was no ancient model: the 18th century sculptor was obviously so taken by their tale of heroism (in which one dies protecting the other—just the kind of story the Greeks and Romans loved) that he invented an ancient artistic model.  And in David’s vast canvas of the Spartans at Thermopylae (a battle people today know from the movie The Three Hundred), David puts in the kind of heroic couple so widely praised in ancient Greek literature, in which the younger man admires and encourages the military valor of his older lover. In short, the Louvre is an amazing place for gay history and art. Not that it isn’t amazing anyway, but it’s fun to have a secret trail to follow through such a vast collection, and (as is always true with gay themes in art museums) following it does not mean missing the highlights: it just means understanding them better!

To find out more about Paris gay history and art on our tour:

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