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By: Emma Frank, Historical Interpreter

Queer history, the history of LGBTQ+ people, can be particularly difficult to study, especially in the 19th century. Sexual orientation, or the categorization of sexual attraction into an identity, was not understood until the early 20th century. Prior to that point, people did not use identifiers such as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ to describe themselves, but people whose genders and sexual experiences fell outside societal norms certainly existed across history. Without a unified language queer people in the past developed personalized languages to describe their experiences, and for many people these languages were symbolic and had ties to art and literature.[1] Rarely did queer people need to invent entirely new languages for this task, as the 19th century was already rife with symbolic languages, and there was perhaps no symbolic language more popular than the language of flowers. By looking for places in which queer culture and flowers intersected, we can better understand how queer people in the past may have understood themselves.


Dessert plate, late 19th century; probably manufactured in Limoges, France and painted in the United States; porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamel, decals, and gilding; bequest of Margaret Gray Thomas, OT1951.47.10. Currently on view in Lingua Flora.

Some of the largest intersections between queer culture and flowers can be found in references to Classical Greek culture.[2] Same-gender desire was discussed openly in the writings of several Greek philosophers, and many Greek artists used floral metaphors when discussing queer experiences. The ancient poet Sappho from Lesbos, an inspiration for the modern term ‘lesbian,’ referenced violets in her love poems about other women, and in the myth of Apollo and his male lover Hyacinthus, as told by Ovid, the god created and dedicated the iris to his lover after his death.[3]

Seemingly inspired by Sappho, the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson used violet-related symbolism in poems addressed to her supposed lover, Sue Gilbert. In a multi-layered reference, an 1897 publication of Charles Algernon Swinburne’s drama Atalanta in Calydon contained illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, who depicted Atalanta standing in a sea of irises.[4] While the drama itself has no ties to queer culture, both Swinburne and Beardsley were known to include taboo (often queer) themes in their art due to their connection to the Aesthetic Movement. It was this very movement that birthed the most iconic 19th-century intersection between queer culture and flowers: the green carnation.


“One sister I have in our house,” from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Published in 1924 by Little, Brown, and Co. (Boston). Library of Congress General Collections, PS1541. A1 1924. Courtesy Library of Congress. Dickinson supposedly wrote this poem to Gilbert sometime following Gilbert’s 1856 marriage to Austin Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s brother.

Artists of the late 19th-century Aesthetic Movement rejected the belief that art needed to be morally correct; instead, they suggested that art should celebrate beauty not morals, even if that beauty was taboo.[5] Irish author Oscar Wilde fully embodied the movement, and his plays, controversially feminine style, and campy personality made him internationally (in)famous, leading him to secure a lecture tour around America and Canada with the Savannah Theatre among his nearly 150 stops.[6] Sometime in early 1892, Wilde began wearing a green carnation on his lapel.[7] Though satirists had tied many flowers to the movement, including the lily and the sunflower, the green carnation acted less as a symbol of the movement and more of Wilde himself. When Wilde was charged with gross indecency in 1895, a punishment for men who had sexual relationships with other men, the green carnation became explicitly associated with queer culture.[8]


Wilde, Oscar Wilde, by Japonica Reginald McGinnis. Published in 1882 by John Church & Co. (Cincinnati). Library of Congress Music Division, 2023842621. Courtesy Library of Congress, Music Division. Satirical works depicting Wilde (and aesthetes in general) as effeminized, flower obsessed caricatures were all too popular in the 1880s and 90s.

In the 19th century, material culture provided queer people with symbols for self-expression. To wear a green carnation in your lapel was to mark yourself as a part of a group, even before that group had a name. For historians today, these symbols serve as reminders that queer people have existed across every moment of human history.

Footnotes

1. Dustin Friedman, Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 26.

2. Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), xiii.

3. Sarah Prager, “Four Flowering Plants That Have Been Decidedly Queered,” JSTOR Daily, January 29, 2020.

4. Robert Ross and Aymer Vallance, Aubrey Beardsley (London, UK: John Lane, 1909; Project Gutenberg, 2010)

5. “An Introduction to the Aesthetic Movement,” Victorian and Albert Museum, Accessed June 9, 2024.

6. “If Oscar Wilde is as truthful as he is aesthetic,” Savannah Morning News (Savannah, GA), August 29, 1882.

7. Karl Beckson, “Oscar Wilde and the Green Carnation,” English Literature in Translation, 1880-1920 18, no. 4 (2000): 387-397.

8. “Oscar Wilde: Trial and Punishment, 1895-1897” (London: Public Record Office, 1997), National Archives.

Related to this Article

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exhibition

Lingua Flora

Jepson Center
Drawing primarily from Telfair Museums’ permanent collection, Lingua Flora explores the use of flowers in fine and decorative arts from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries.
exhibition

Lingua Flora

Jepson Center
Drawing primarily from Telfair Museums’ permanent collection, Lingua Flora explores the use of flowers in fine and decorative arts from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries.
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