Victorian-era illustrations aren’t the obvious source of inspiration for contemporary queer art-making. After all, the 19th century movement was characterized by its renditions of white, middle-class life in England that effectively left out people already invisible in society, including a queer underclass.
Yet, Guadalajara-born artist Felix D’Eon prefers to incorporate the art historical styles that “ignore the fact that gay people ever existed,” such as that of Edwardian paintings, golden-era American comic books, and children’s illustrations. In his detailed drawings of gay romance and sexuality, D’Eon employs the aesthetics of these styles to, at once, create the beautiful representations of gay people he wished he had seen in his youth and to challenge modern-day stigmas around same-sex relationships.
D’Eon’s thorough research and commitment to historical accuracy allows his illustration to appear taken from the pages of an art history textbook. The effect of the verisimilitude gives his images — even the most erotic and provocative ones highlighting threesomes and orgies – the same delicate aura of summertime romance present in the paintings and illustrations he borrows from.
“If I’m painting in the style of an Edwardian children’s book, you’re going to feel that, tender and soft and romantic,” D’Eon tells me. “I can paint images that are really strong, really sexual, and they don’t feel super strong and sexual. They feel like the original art that I’m inspired by.”
The nuances in his work can perhaps be traced to his original intention in creating queer art. As a gay child growing up in Los Angeles, D’Eon couldn’t find images that reflected his identity as a queer Latino in his surroundings or in the mass media, which he says led to low self-esteem. He turned to what seemed to come innately to him: drawing realistic renditions of the natural world. Then, when he moved to San Francisco to attend the Academy of Art University, a new world suddenly opened up to him that accepted and celebrated queerness.
“I wanted to see myself reflected in a work of art because [I hadn’t seen that] exist before.”
In art school, he drew sketches of his friends, many of them gay men, and people that he found on the street. “Anyone I found cute,” he says with a laugh.
“Initially, my fantasy about making these kinds of artwork was making paintings that reflected queer people,” D’Eon adds. “I wanted to see myself reflected in a work of art because [I hadn’t seen that] exist before.”
When a friend who owned a gay bar commissioned him to illustrate fliers in Victorian style, everything began to come together: his childhood fondness for children’s book and vintage drawings, a lifelong passion for history, and his desire to exhibit queer romance meaningfully.
Since then, he’s taken a more intersectional approach to his artwork – an important step to challenge the homonormativity present in queer art. His original drawings usually featured gay white men and Latinos, which D’Eon explains were the people who surrounded him in San Francisco and now in Mexico City, where he resettled in 2010. Recently, he’s done the work of seeking out a wider range of people that fall in the queer spectrum. His latest work is drawings of lesbian women, fat models, genderqueer subjects, more people of color, and transgender men in his signature, vintage illustrations.
“I feel that no one was represented in this artwork except for this very narrow range of people, and I really like the idea of being able to extend this narrative of love and history and just a romantic image of our ancestors to include a wider part of the queer community,” D’Eon says.
For the drawings he does with communities he’s less familiar with, he makes sure to have long conversations with the models to consult how they want to see themselves. He explains that he wants every model to feel good about how she or he appears in D’Eon’s illustrations and his process is evident in the final results. Many of his subjects are nude or partially clothed and some have never modeled before, yet there’s no hint of self-consciousness or doubt in their expressions. Instead, their body language and gazes read empowered and at ease.
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Scrolling through his Instagram feed of more than 3,000 posts, the comments left on an image titled “Los Sirenitos” – which feature two transgender mermen locked in a tender gaze as a turbulent ocean parts around them – stand out. “That’s me and my bf!!!!” someone excitedly writes. On another drawing of a transgender men, who stands coyly and shirtless in knee-length trousers common in Central Europe, one of D’Eon’s 61,000 followers requests for even more diverse representations: “Could you do some non-passing trans people sometime?”
Ultimately, D’Eon’s illustrations read as an alternative history for the queer people he draws. None of his characters suffer from tragic endings or acts of injustice like they perhaps might have in the past or even present day. Instead, D’Eon recreates the world not as it was or is, but imagines the world as it can be. In one image, the black, equestrian couple that kisses publicly in what could be a setting in 19th century America does so without looking behind them to see who is watching. They embrace warmly, eyes closed.