John Gibson (1790-1866) was born in Wales and raised in Liverpool, but he established a long career in Rome as one of that city’s—and Great Britain’s—most important sculptors. Gibson counted among his patrons Queen Victoria and the Duke of Devonshire, but he is best remembered today for reintroducing polychromy into sculpture in works such as his infamous Tinted Venus (c.1852). A follower of Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, and a teacher of Harriet Hosmer, Gibson flourished into the mid-Victorian period espousing the wisdom of J.J. Winckelmann and ancient Greek art, and producing his own interpretations of the gods in marble. At the encouragement of friends, he began writing his memoirs in the 1840s. These autobiographical notes stand today as a source for understanding both the classical references, and their queer implications, in his oeuvre.
In his memoirs, Gibson discussed his vision of idealized love by drawing on the figures of Anteros and Eros as aspects of spiritual passion. Overshadowed by his mythological brother, Anteros was created to be Eros’s playmate; literally and etymologically, he was “returned love” for the passion of Eros. Their duality was linked to the ancient Greek pederastic tradition, cited by Plato and others, with Eros as the passion offered by an elder erastes and Anteros the returned affection (sometimes sublimated) of the youthful eromenos. Though Gibson never explicitly discussed homosexual love or pederasty in his memoirs, he channeled Eros (and Anteros) into many of his sculptures, revealing to classically educated audiences intimations of same-sex passion.
In this paper, I will examine some of these classical subjects, such as the group Mars Restrained by Cupid (c.1820) and single figures such as Love Tormenting the Soul (1839). I will consider these works using Gibson’s own writings on ancient Greek love and art, but I also will draw on the present-day scholarship of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Whitney Davis, and others, contextualizing how Gibson used his Neoclassical origins to adumbrate the burgeoning homosexual identity seen in later Victorian art. By using coded visual language and imagery to channel (Ant)Eros in British art, Gibson helped pave the way for a conscious homosexual identity in the work of Simeon Solomon, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, Alfred Gilbert, and others.