Rare photographs of men embracing intimately in Victorian times, 1850-1890


Victorians were known for their conservative lifestyles, but these paintings show that many men of that era were not afraid to show affection. Provocative black-and-white images from the nineteenth century show men in surprisingly intimate embraces.

They are seen holding hands, wrapping their arms around each other, sitting with their feet on each other's laps, and enjoying intimate physical contact without any apparent concern.

These photographs, mainly stereographs and daguerreotypes, are part of a collection given by Columbia University librarian Herbert Mitchell to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

As you can see, these paintings document men of all social positions, intellectuals, working men, teachers, painters etc. However little is known about the subjects, so their relationship remains open to interpretation.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests that the paintings are a "natural and self-conscious intimacy and physical contact that men enjoyed in the pre-Freudian era rather than portraits of lovers held in each other's embrace".

Viewers sometimes erroneously conclude that these men were expressing their closed homosexual tendencies to the camera. While some men may be gay, most are either close friends or siblings.

When you start scouring through old photos, you'll find that these poses weren't a mistake, but were actually quite common. Photos now open a window into the picture of masculinity quite foreign to us.

There are many reasons why men were so affectionate towards each other at that time. Men were free to have affectionate male relationships with each other without fear of being called "gay" because the concept of homosexuality as we know it today did not exist then. There was no strict straight or gay dualism that currently exists in America. Affectionate feelings were not strictly labeled as sexual or platonic.

Another reason for the intense male friendships of the nineteenth century was that the social structure of society during this time helped foster such deep bonds. Men and women basically lived in separate gay worlds until they were married. At that time there was not much contact between the sexes.

Some serious changes took place in human friendship during the 20th century. Men tended to avoid too much emotional bonding or any form of physical affection by using cute words on each other and holding hands.

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