January 30, 1902 – George Quaintance
Before there was Tom of Finland, James Bidgood, or Pierre et Gilles, there was George Quaintance, a master painter and photographer of the male physique who was openly gay during an era where being out of the closet was dangerous and usually illegal. The idealized masculine bodies in his paintings, prints, and drawings celebrate the homoerotic, walking a tightrope along the edge of acceptability and censorship of his time.
Quaintance studied art in New York City and first gained attention illustrating spicy covers for pulp magazines and paperbacks with a style inspired by the vintage pinup artist Enoch Bolles.
In 1951, his art was used for the first cover of Physique Pictorial (1951-1990), edited by Bob Mizer of the Athletic Model Guild. Quaintance’s work often showed men in historical or classical settings to justify the nudity. He depicted Greek gods and indigenous people of North and South America, in their ”natural state”. Ingeniously, Quaintance normalized his depictions of hot naked muscular men enjoying each other’s company by placing them in scenes of guys doings physical work; often Wild West cowboys, ranch hands, or Latin laborers. These images, seen through the gaze of queer desire, made way for the macho stud as a ”type” in the gay pantheon of characters.
Quaintance was born in the Blue Ridge mountains of northwest Virginia, growing up on a farm 90 miles west of Washington DC. He was making art even as a kid. At 18 years old, he began studying at the Art Students League in New York City. He also studied dance, and for a while was vaudeville performer. He was briefly married even though he was gay, because that’s what you did in those days. In the 1930s he became a hairstylist, which came in handy when he lost his own thin, limp hair. From his early 30s, he wore hairpieces to help further his butch image as a handsome, youthful bodybuilder. He was skilled at making wigs; Quaintance became a sought-after women’s hairstylists in the 1930s with clients that included Marlene Dietrich, Jeanette MacDonald and Lynne Fontanne.
His first art was for advertising. In the mid-1930s he started to sell freelance cover illustrations to pulp and movie star fan magazines, sold at burlesque halls and under the counter at discreet newsstands. These illustrations of pinup girls were usually signed “Geo. Quintana.”. By 1937 he was the highest-paid illustrator for Gay French magazine, earning more than $50,000 a year. He was the inspiration to great creators of the female pin-up genre, such as Vargas. At the same time he was doing pin-ups, he also was painting formal portraits of diplomats, society wives and his friends.
In 1938, Quaintance teamed up with Victor Garcia, who became his main model, and his life and business partner. Their relationship was not exclusive, each openly took other lovers.
In 1951, Quaintance’s art was used for the first cover of Physique Pictorial. He also wrote articles and provided artwork for other magazines catering to the burgeoning bodybuilding cult of the 1940s and 1950s. He was a frequent judge at bodybuilding competitions around the country.
Here is a little background: 47 years ago, the landmark Supreme Court case Miller v. California established the so-called ”Miller Test” for obscenity. According to the ruling, which is based on ” the average person, applying contemporary adult community standards”, any matter that ”lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” and ”taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interests” is obscene, and thus not protected by the First Amendment.
The Miller Test was not the first time American courts had ruled on obscenity. It built directly on Roth v. United States (1957), which said had that obscene material was ”utterly without redeeming social importance”.
At the beginning of the nation, communities mostly regulated their own behavior. But then there was the Comstock Act of 1873, which prohibited mailing ”obscene, lewd, or lascivious material”, including materials about sex education. The most colorful obscenity disputes took place right around the turn of the 20th century as new technology, films and rapidly expanding press were breaking down the barriers between private and public. That made people coming out of the Victorian era quite nervous.
Because of the era he lived in, Quaintance’s work could not include full-frontal nudity, which legally could only be depicted in work for private commissions. But soon, however, Tom of Finland, who claimed Quaintance as a major influence, broke through the barrier of full-frontal male nudity.
The very first cover illustration by Quaintace is of a near nude youth astride a galloping stallion, a shocking new image of “the perfect man”. For the next six years, Quaintnance was prominently featured in Physique Pictorial.
Quaintance and Garcia had moved to the West coast in 1948. After a few years in Los Angeles, they set up a home and studio in Arizona sometime in the early 1950s. They dubbed it Rancho Siesta, and it served headquarters of Studio Quaintance, a business venture to produce and promote Quaintance’s artwork. The place was an idealized Western adobe abode, but it was not a ranch, nor did it allow much time for any siesta. It was the busy center of the artist’s obsession, the classic male physique. Located in a residential subdivision of Phoenix, Rancho Siesta was where Quaintance created his best paintings, at least 60 oil-on-canvas works in five years.
His paintings from this era also depicted Mexican, Native American and Central American men, and for a time Quaintance had a Mexican lover. Everyone should, at least once in their life. Quaintance’s ranch was featured in the pages of Physique Pictorial, where it was described as a landed estate in Paradise Valley. The setting was described as a place populated by livestock, models, staffers, ex-lovers and followers who were young, handsome, built like gods and wearing nothing except than 501 Levis and boots. Actually, it was a modest 1950s-era ranch house in the Loma Linda, east of Phoenix. The house is still there.
Quaintance taught Garcia how to shoot artful male nudes on film. At the same time, he began painting the series of large oil paintings of robust cowboys, well-muscled Indians, and male nudes from classical antiquity.
Taking advantage of the new burst of queer consciousness in post-World War II America, Quaintance and Garcia began marketing black-and-white photographs of his near-nude models and color prints of the paintings. The works he sold by mail offer no dicks except in the tight confines of Levis, an image first popularized by Quaintance, or through sheer curtains in strategic positions.
The work is far from pornographic; even tame by 21st century standards. Yet, their controversial content and message prevented Quaintance from being accpted in the mainstream art world. His only gallery exhibition occurred when a friend loaned Quaintance’s painting, The Crusader, for a display of works of contemporary American artists in the late 1950s.
Night In The Desert (1951), shows a reclining nude cowboy gleaming in the moonlight with blond hair perfectly coiffed. He is offering a lighted match to a cigarette in the mouth of the dark handsome youth lying next to him, suggesting a post-coital moment. In the background, two other hyper-masculine cowboys face each other wearing only in Levis, legs spread.
The blond cowboy resembles Quantance, who kept in excellent physical shape even after his dancing career ended. But his thinning hair failed to match his standard of perfection, but he always had his wigs.
But Quaintance’s personal vanity was part of the mix that lent a unique quality to his oil paintings. A blond Quaintance clone stands prominently with three dark-skinned Latino cowboys in Saturday Night (1954). All four studs leaning against the bar wear skin-tight Levis, one with a prominent bulge.
Interest in his art grew in the insular gay world of the mid- 20th century. In 1954, Quaintance photographs and prints appeared in Der Kreis, a magazine published in Switzerland and one of the first openly gay publications in the world.
The Rancho Siesta household consisted of Quaintance’s Mexican boyfriend, plus Garcia and his new boyfriend, Tom Syphers, a tall blond from Utah.
The pace of the photograph and print business grew. Quaintance worked through the night, taking amphatamines to remain awake to complete commissions for magazines and to keep pace with mail orders. On November 1957, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 55 years old.
If you want to know more about him and his work, try Quaintance: The Short Life of An American Art Pioneer (2013) by Ken Furtado and John Waybright
We now have fewer obscenity prosecutions and most of the concern is about child pornography, but the national mood could be pointing the way to a much-censored future, with consenting adults no longer able to decide for themselves what they will read and see. Thanks President Pence!