George Barbier: Fashioning the Queer Identity

George Barbier was one of the leading illustrators from the 1910s through the 1920s. His work in book illustration, fashion publication and theatrical design would come to define the Art Deco genre. Barbier illustrated more than 30 books, contributed illustrations to many popular magazines of the period including La gazette du bon Ton, and wrote numerous social commentaries, art criticisms, and theatre reviews (“Discoveries and Dispatches”). Despite the incredible success achieved within his lifetime, Barbier fell into obscurity for decades after his death in 1932.

Self Portrait, George Barbier, 1928. Image from Imaginative Book Illustration Society

Self Portrait, George Barbier 1928. Image from Imaginative Book Illustration Society

Art history has widely ignored Barbier’s contributions to this period of design. While more abstract and masculinized styles such as Cubism were on the rise, Barbier chose to primarily focus on neoclassical stylization. His work, which often featured fashionable women, was highly feminized compared to the masculinized modernist movement (Tickner).

George Barbier lived a very private life. Born in Nantes, France to a wealthy merchant family, he studied in the École Régionale du Dessin et des Beaux-Arts. By 1908 he enrolled in Jean-Paul Laurens’ studio at the Académie Julien in Paris. He apparently found the formal study of art to be tedious, instead he drew inspiration from ancient Etruscan tomb paintings, and Neoclassical literature (Unno).

Illustration of Pochoir Process. Image from Pochoir World.

Illustration of Pochoir Process. Image from Pochoir World.

Although some of Barbier’s works are reproduced using woodcuts, the majority of his prints are made using pochoir printing. The pochoir technique allows illustrations to be reproduced in brilliant colours and iridescent metallics. This method was often used in deluxe French publication of books and journals throughout the Art Deco period, but disappeared from use with the introduction of colour photography in the 1930s (“Rediscovering George Barbier”). While creating vibrant colour palettes, the technique was limited in that it did not accommodate shading, and it was a slow, labour‐intensive and expensive colouring process. At the height of its popularity over thirty graphic design studios in France employed upwards of six hundred workers to colour the pochoirs (“Rediscovering George Barbier”). Although some purists criticized the pochoir technique for its simplicity, Barbier vigorously defended it as a way to present “the artist’s work in all its freshness without that often slightly cold transfer produced by mechanical means” (Conway Morris).

Throughout the war years, while most fashion publications were inactive, Barbier continued to illustrate in his signature Art Deco style. La guirlande des mois was a limited run of yearly almanacs released between 1917 and 1921. Each issue, published by Jules Meynial, is compiled of charming illustrations, poems, songs and stories. The issue released in 1919, is particularly poignant. The almanac is filled with reminders of the war, depicting areas in conflict, and images of soldiers reuniting with loved ones. The little volumes were bound with Bodoni board covered with white satin and painted with Barbier illustrations, accompanied by dust jackets and slip cases (“Chevalier Du Bracelet”).

La Guirlande des Mois Front cover and slip. Image from

La guirlande des mois Front cover and slip. Image from

La Guirlande des Mois back cover and slip. Image from

La guirlande des mois back cover and slip. Image from

Issue 3, from 1919, depicts a radical post‐war shift in fashions with the adoption of shorter and fuller skirts, backless dresses, and fabrics that accommodated the more risqué elements of the ‘tango’ (“Chevalier Du Bracelet”). The book is bound in white satin covers and painted with Barbier’s illustrations. Each volume contained six pochoir coloured plates. On the front cover, a black silhouette depicts a fashionable woman in a flowing skirt, exuberant headdress and flowers in hand. On the back, we see the silhouette of a soldier holding a gun. Upon opening the book, the front page depicts a cupid wearing an army hat and holding a drum amidst a smoky background.

La Guirlande des Mois, Title Page. George Barbier, 1919. Image from

La guirlande des mois, Title Page. George Barbier, 1919. Image from

Illustrations throughout focus on women greeting their loved ones as they return from war. The women are fashionably dressed in flowing gowns and elegant hair contemporary to the period. The men are depicted in varying uniforms indicating which army they served for.

La Guirlande des Mois 1919. Image by Ketzia Sherman, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

La guirlande des mois 1919. Image by Ketzia Sherman. Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives.

La Guirlande des Mois 1919. Image by Ketzia Sherman, courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum

La guirlande des mois 1919. Image by Ketzia Sherman. Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives.

In this book about homecoming, and reuniting, one illustration stands out. It depicts two women embracing, faces practically touching while they feed their pet bird. They wear elegant flowing gowns trimmed with furs and lace. Their dresses are cut low, revealing shoulders and décolletage indicating evening wear. Surrounding them are signs of the popular orientalist trend, including a bonsai plant in a Japanese style vase.

As Tu Bien Déjeune Jacquot?

‘As-tu bien déjeuné Jacquot?’ Illustration from La guirlande des mois. George Barbier, 1919. Image by Ketzia Sherman. Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives.

Analyzing this scene, as well as similar images throughout Barbier’s collection, from a semiotic perspective reveals a complex set of meanings behind his work. Semiotics is the study of sign processes and meaning-making. It aims to “take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects and the complex association of these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment” (Jobling, 135). Semiotic’s use in understanding imagery in terms of symbolic significations adds a layer of meaning to Barbier’s work and allows us a glimpse into Barbier’s mysterious life.

The position of the women illustrated signifies a close, intimate relationship. They feed their pet bird while wearing evening attire and casually embracing, hinting that these women are more than friends. The exotic backdrop of oriental pots and trees implies they exist in another world, free to express their relationship. In this illustration, the husband never comes home and the female protagonist finds love with the woman who remains.

Moving through the late 1910s and into the 1920s, Barbier’s figures continue to exist in a space between gender. His female figures have always had boyish shape, opposed to the Edwardian style of earlier fashions, but well suited to the new boyish fashions introduced by Chanel.

L'Aveu Dificile. Falbalas et Fanfreluches, 1923. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

L’Aveu dificile. Falbalas et fanfreluches, 1923. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

This illustration from Falbalas et fanfreluches, the sequel almanach series after La guirlande des mois, depicts a another interesting narrative. The women’s positions, clasping hands while one kneels on the ground is reminiscent of a marriage proposal. The woman on the left, with her face turned away, is clearly contemplating a difficult decision. The caption reads “a difficult admission,” hinting towards the intimate moment taking place. Like As-tu bien déjeuné Jacquot, this illustration subtly signifies a queer relationship told through the confines of fashionable femininity.

A sapphic subtext is often present in Barbier’s work, as evident in this illustration and others. He frequently features highly feminine couples and trios with companions whose gender is either ambiguous or clearly women in drag. Masculinized men that appear in Barbier’s work are usually depicted as “abject slaves” to indifferent females, or as background props to fill space in a composition (Conway Morris).

Modes et Manieres D'aujourd'hui, 1914. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

Modes et manieres d’aujourd’hui, 1914. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

Dessins sur les Danses de Vaslav Nijinsky, 1913. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

‘Dessins sur les danses de vaslav nijinsky.’ George Barbier, 1913. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

Falbalas et Fanfreluches, 1925. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

“Falbalas et fanfreluches.’ George Barbier, 1925. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

An early work, entitled “Les dames seules” or “Single Women” is particularly fascinating as it depicts a dapper figure in a dark morning coat, waistcoat, starched collar and tie glancing towards a demure feminine figure (Conway Morris). Lacking the usual ambiguity, this image clearly signifies a cross-gendering subculture which Barbier is privy to.

Les Dames Seules, 1910.

‘Les dames seules.’ George Barbier, 1910. Image from George Barbier: Master of Art Deco by Hiroshi Unno

The background imagery within Barbier’s works also have interesting significations. While the women depicted in his fashion plates and almanacs wear the most current fashion, the scenery reflects earlier eras and exotic worlds. From imperial oriental images of China and Japan, harems from One Thousand and One Nights, to opulent rococo Versailles and his preferred neoclassical landscapes of ancient Greece. There is a longing within his work, a desire for escape into an imaginary scene (Unno).

Barbier surrounded himself with likeminded individuals. Pierre Louÿs, a poet and novelist who wrote the catalogue to Barbier’s first exhibit in 1911, often referenced Greek classics in his erotic writings. Chansons de bilitis written by Louÿs in 1895 was fully illustrated by Barbier with sensual images celebrating female beauty, nudity and blatant homosexuality. The paintings reference ancient Greek utopia, the work of Sappho and the island of Lesbos, in which the homoeroticism only hinted at in other works is celebrated. Following its release, Barbier continued to create illustrations unapologetically depicting lesbian sexuality (Unno).


Les chansons de bilitis. George Barbier, 1922. Image from Book Graphics.

G Barbier les chansons de Bilitis

Les chansons de bilitis. George Barbier, 1922. Image from Book Graphics.

Les Chansons de Bilitis, 1922. Image from Book Graphics.

Les chansons de bilitis. George Barbier, 1922. Image from Book Graphics.

Barbier and Louÿs are documented to have maintained a close relationship throughout their lifetimes. The many blanks in Barbier’s biography, despite his large body of work and his fame, suggest that his personal life was deliberately concealed. We do know he frequented unmistakably, if not exclusively, homosexual circles – he was, for example, an intimate of the dandy and poet Robert de Montesquiou, who introduced him to Marcel Proust. Barbier maintained a close friendship with the likes of Paul Iribe, Pierre Brissaud and Georges Lepape. Vogue magazine called them “The Knights of the Bracelet”, referring to their dandyish dress and manners (“Discoveries and Dispatches”). His work signifies his likely homosexuality, or at the least, his exposure and admiration of the homosexual circles of early 20th century France. Interwar France is sometimes referred to as the “first golden age” of french homosexuality. It was characterized as a decade of “increased tolerance” with “an explosion of the homosexual scene” (Jackson 31). Notorious dance halls emerged in Monmarte, Pigalle and Montparnesse catering to exclusively homosexual clientele (Jackson 32).

George Barbier’s work may easily be dismissed as merely feminine, chic and fashionable as evident in the near complete lack of scholarly investigation awarded to his art. It is integral to continue to examine Barbier’s work critically in order to reveal and highlight an often deliberately erased history.

Works Cited

Conway Morris, Roderick. “Forgotten Art of French Illustrator George Barbier Is Rediscovered at Fortuny Museum Show.” New York Times. NY Times, 8 Nov. 2008. Web.

Jackson, Julian. Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics, and Morality in France from the Liberation to AIDS. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009. Print.

Jobling, Paul. “Roland Barthes: Semiology and the Rhetorical Codes of Fashion.” Thinking through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists. By Agnès Rocamora. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 132-48. Print.

“La guirlande des mois Pour 1919 Petit Almanach Illustré Par George Barbier Couverture En Soie Imprimée.” N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

Martorelli, Barbara. George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco. Venice: Marsilio, 2008. Print.

Smith, Arthur. “Discoveries and Dispatches.” ROM Magazine (2013): 4. ROM. Royal Ontario Museum, Fall 2013. Web.

Smith, Arthur M. ‘Chevalier Du Bracelet’: George Barbier and His Illustrated Works: Exhibition & Catalogue. Toronto: U of Toronto Library, 2013. Print.

Smith, Arthur. “Rediscovering George Barbier, Art Deco Illustrator and Costume Designer Extraordinaire.” Royal Ontario Museum (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

TICKNER, Lisa. “In visible touch: modernism and masculinity; Chicago; University of Chicago Press The popular culture of Kermesse: Lewis, painting and performance, 1912-13.” (1997).

Unno, Horoshi. Fashion Illustration and Graphic Design: George Barbier: Master of Art Deco. Tokyo: PIE International, 2011. Print.

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