13 October 2010

George Quaintance (Part One)

George Quaintance Photo

Lest Old AcQuaintance Be Forgot:
The Legacy of
George Quaintance
by Donny Jacobs

The death of George Quaintance from a fatal heart attack on November 9, 1957 has brought sadness throughout the entire physical culture world. For many years a portrait painter, Mr. Quaintance began to do physique work just as a hobby. With the publication of his first group physique study, "Havasu Creek", in the first issue of Physique Pictorial, the name of Quaintance caught the country by storm and an insatiable demand for his work began. A perfectionist, he drove himself unmercifully, slaving days and nights(and taking Benzedrine to stay awake) to finish a painting or a sculpture piece. His body couldn't take the beating, and his health broke down many times . . . still he was driven by the indomitable drive to create . . . throughout the world, he has been acclaimed as the trailblazer of a (male nude art) culture which has been almost ignored for twenty centuries . . . but Quaintance will never really die. In each of his paintings, he has put something of himself; it is almost as if he played out his life before its time by giving up so much of himself. Few have been able to leave a legacy so rich as he has.

This eulogy, written in late November 1957 by Bob Mizer, legendary physique photographer and publisher of the seminal Gay magazine Physique Pictorial, was a fitting tribute to a man who, like Mizer, was a true pioneer. Today there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of artists who specialize in casting an erotic allure over the nude male form. These artists think nothing of depicting two or more nude males in graphically sexual poses. However, in the 1940s, when George Quaintance began creating art for a Gay male sensibility, homoeroticism wasn't graphic. It couldn't be. Attraction between two men could only be hinted at, because to actually visualize it was illegal. Being Gay was illegal, too.

So George Quaintance worked within the limits, turning out dozens of mildly homoerotic compositions for his largely Gay male clientele to drool over clandestinely(a clientele who hid behind the socially-sanctioned guise of "physical culture" enthusiasts) . . . but how he did it! Such vibrant color! Such mastery of light and shadow! Such elasticity of line! He was the first American painter who placed depictions of male-on-male desire on the same level as classic landscape and portrait artistry. George Quaintance's stellar craftsmanship has stood the test of time beautifully, and even though the best of his work in oil paint now looks quaint and dated, its restrained eroticism exerts a magnetic pull that fascinates to this day. A Quaintance painting is proof that what they say is true: Leaving certain things to the imagination can be ever so much sexier than showing it!

Spartan Soldiers, 1956

Honolulu-based erotic artist Douglas Simonson knows a thing or two about implied eroticism: His stylish renderings of native Hawaiian, African and South American men are in the Quaintance tradition of emphasizing physical beauty over graphic sexuality. Rarely does he veer into pornographic territory. "I've been familiar with Quaintance since probably the early '70s," he told me recently. "I wasn't particularly influenced by him in terms of artistic style, (but) like Tom of Finland and a few others, he inspired me simply by having been a portrayer of the male nude at a time when almost no one had the courage to do so."

George Quaintance has been mistaken for Hispanic, no doubt because so many of his paintings feature images of Latino men; others have clamied that he came from French-Canadian roots. Whatever his ethnic background, he was a country boy, born and raised on a farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His birthdate was 3 June 1902. When he wasn't busy helping his parents with farm work, he drew pictures every chance he got; the lush country setting inspired him. Some rural parents would have frowned on such unmanly activities, but fortunately for George, the Quaintances saw fit to encourage them; when he begged for art utensils, they sent away for some. Young George was overjoyed when the set of pencils, brushes and paints arrived. He began using them straight away to hone his budding talents.

At the age of 18, he traveled to New York City and enrolled at the Art Students League, a prestigious academy that Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock and Maurice Sendak would later attend. There he studied painting, drawing and both classical and modern dance.  His family was very wealthy, and able to fund his studies. Upon graduating, Quaintance embarked on a career as a commercial illustrator, sculptor and professional portrait painter. Some of the landscapes he painted during this period (such as 1925's "Home On The Farm") still turn up occasionally at art auctions. He also created superb Art Deco sculptures, an example of which appears below. However, his most lucrative work came from freelancing as an illustrator for movie magazines; believe it or not, the man who'd become famous for his male nudes drew "girlie" pin-up art during his early career. He was capable of far more ambitious things, though; in 1933, during a trip back home, he fulfilled his mother's request to paint a religious mural for her church in Stanley, Virginia. The tableau, which features a stunning rendition of Jesus Christ, still exists.

Quaintance Art Deco

But George Quaintance was like a fountain overflowing with creative energy; visual art could not contain his talent. In the 1920s and '30s, he toured the vaudeville circuit with a dance troupe called the Collegians. He also taught tap dance and ballet for a time. By the late 1930s, he had re-invented himself as a hairdresser based in Hollywood. He designed coiffures for major movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Helen Hayes (years later, he would style the haircuts of his male models). Working in the film colony apparently triggered directorial ambitions within him; periodically, he would return home to Virginia, round up some local talent, and stage elaborate musical revues that he wrote himself. By the early 1940s, he had also became interested in photography. George Quaintance was nothing less than a wunderkind, trying his hand and excelling at any number of creative endeavors. The one endeavor he didn't excel at during this period was marriage. A hasty union with one of his vaudeville dance partners, Miriam Chester, lasted less than a year.

If there's one thing George Quaintance's biographers can all agree on, it's the fact that he was a Gay man. Why on Earth would he marry up with a woman? He no doubt did so for one of the reasons Gay men still wed hetereosexually: Societal stigma placed on homosexual relationships; family expectations; the shame-based desire to force himself Straight; the delusion that his attraction to other men was just a phase. Certainly, Gay marriage wasn't even dreamt of in the 1930s: Men were expected to marry women, and that was that! Homosexual orientation was even less well understood then than it is today(the word "Gay" was relatively new, decades away from becoming common parlance). Nobody knew what it was, and few people knew what to call it, so it was easy for everyone to pretend that it didn't exist. As many Gay as Straight people took up this absurd pretense, and many still do.

If George Quaintance was one of these pretenders, he proved unable to make believe for very long. He found the female body aesthetically pleasing, but it held no erotic appeal for him. The male body was what excited him. In fact, his passion for male bodies was so strong, he would discover that he needed more than one lover at a time to satisfy it! When he began mixing business with pleasure later on in his life, that passion would come to dominate the kind of artwork he produced.

The Falconer, 1957

Several years after his marriage dissolved, Quaintance began studying physique photography under Lon Of New York, among others. Lon Hanagan, whose work is highly revered today, was one of the pioneer physique photographers. While tutoring him, Hanagan took advantage of Quaintance's painting skill; in those days when total male nudity in commercial photographs was verboten, fig leaves had to appear over a nude model's genitalia(I kid you not). Taking paintbrush in hand, Quaintance diligently added these modesty-preserving adornments to many Lon of New York photo sets.

In all likelihood, Hanagan introduced Quaintance to the man who'd become his life and business partner. Puerto Rico-born Victor García had been one of Hanagan's models. By the mid-1940s, Victor and George had set up housekeeping together. This relationship would last until the end of Quaintance's life, but not without amendments! In 1953, their pairing would turn into a ménage à trois after Quaintance added a third man, Angel Avila, to their household. Quaintance had hired Avila to model for a series of matador studies. Evidently, García didn't cotton to the three-way relationship, and Avila moved out; however, he would have to learn to adapt. There would continue to be another man (usually a physique model, and usually Latino) in Quaintance's life and home up until his death. Eventually, Victor García fully embraced polyamory and took a second lover himself. Tall, Nordic-looking Tom Syphers kept him company when Quaintance's amorous attentions strayed. By 1956, Garcia, Syphers, Quaintance and whoever his new flame of the moment was were all living and sleeping together at Rancho Siesta, an Arizona property which became the latter's studio and business headquarters.

Coral Reef, 1956

Much of importance happened before George Quaintance's love life took such an exotic turn, though. In 1948, he and Garcia relocated from New York to California. Quaintance had decided to concentrate on physique photography and paintings, and he no doubt had heard of the thriving bodybuilding scene at Venice Beach(then known as Muscle Beach). He wanted to be in close proximity to the best male specimens. By 1951, Quaintance had set up a mail order business in order to market his product; he'd been honing his male nude technique since the early '40s, and now he believed he finally had something commercial to offer. The first compositions he offered for sale were "Havasu Creek", "Young Stallion", "Kanaka Fisherman", "White Captive", "The Crusader", "Pearl Diver", "In The Arms of Morpheus", "Night In The Desert" and "Dashing."

He mainly advertised through Bob Mizer's Physique Pictorial, the most famous of several precursors to today's Gay skin mags. There was really no other place suitable for advertising the kind of work he did! His physique paintings typically featured semi-nude male couples or groups of men, captured in suggestive attitudes or poses. When they wore pants, the trousers were skintight, with visible bulges in the crotch. Although he necessarily eschewed frontal nudity, Quaintance pushed the envelope as far as he dared. The result was paintings that were considered much too daring for general exhibition. Truth be told, concentrating on the male nude destroyed George Quaintance's chances for a career as a mainstream artist; the stigma placed on homoerotic art was that strong. However, once his mail order business became as lucrative as it did, he might not have cared much.

The prints and slides he made of his provocative paintings sold like hotcakes! He and Victor García could barely keep any in stock. Quaintance's online biographers Ken Furtado and John Waybright have attempted to explain the huge appeal his artwork had for Gay men in the '50s. They wrote: "Quaintance's male physique paintings (made) casual nudity among men . . . so expressive and so connotative, with never a (penis) to be seen, as to assume a potency previously associated only with pornography."

To non-sympathetic eyes, it proved to be quite potent indeed! His painting "Aztec Sacrifice", which depicted two bare-bottomed Indian braves dying from arrow wounds, touched off a royal furore among postal authorities when it appeared as a Physique Pictorial cover image in August 1952. Its distribution was reportedly banned in some locales. The controversy gave Bob Mizer lots of headaches, but it undoubtedly helped send Quaintance Studio sales figures through the roof.

Sunrise, 1953

"The Legacy of George Quaintance" concludes with Part Two.

George Quaintance (Part Two)

George Quaintance Photo

Lest Old AcQuaintance Be Forgot:
The Legacy of
George Quaintance
by Donny Jacobs

Quaintance’s world is a largely female-free dreamscape of perfectly-muscled glamour boys showing their bodies to one another but never doing anything so salacious as kissing. This is a utopia of good clean fun and, fifty years ago, was more than enough to pack an erotic charge for men starved of homoerotic imagery. From our perspective today it looks rather innocent . . . Quaintance (shows) us as much naked flesh as possible, (while) always ensuring that a shadow, wisp of smoke or trail of cloth falls across the forbidden area (this also ensures that your eye is drawn to that very place).

This assessment of George Quaintance's oeuvre comes from artist and blogger John Coulthart. While valid as far as it goes, it understates Quaintance's importance to the field of Gay erotic art. He was arguably the first American artist to adapt homoerotic scenes into a true art form; despite their suggestiveness, his compositions aren't "dirty pictures" by any stretch of the imagination. He was the first artist to portray men in Levis as sexy. He was the first artist to eroticize masculine archetypes such as the cowboy, the Indian brave, and the matador; without him, The Village People might never have been concieved! Like The Village People, Quaintance wasn't just selling homoeroticism, either. He was selling male iconography, as well as the romanticism that was attached to it.

George Quaintance was much more than a pin-up artist. He was a serious craftsman. The main purpose of his paintings was to depict sexual attraction between men, but that wasn't enough to make them legitimate works of art, and he knew that. Accordingly, he presented most of his male images against a backdrop of exotic cultural, mythological, pastoral or historical themes. What was going on behind the hunks was almost as interesting to look at as the hunks themselves.

"Mr. Quaintance is a devoted student of the folklore of (American) Indians and of the North and South American continents and has . . . prepared several dramatic paintings illuminating (them)", noted his publicist in 1953. "In the year to come, Quaintance will be working on a new series of Western paintings . . . his models will be men of the land, Navajo and Apache Indians, young ranchers and rodeo stars, and that fascinating cross-breed of Indian and Spaniard known as Mexican." These new paintings would be some of his most memorable: "Sunset" with its rambunctious outdoor shower scene, "Navajo", a more tranquil depiction of men bathing; "Saturday Night", probably the first time a Gay Western bar was depicted on canvas; the lakeside nudes of "Lake Apache"; and such smouldering chiaroscuro masterpieces as "The Bandit" and "Noise In The Night." Quaintance claimed that, on average, his compositions took "two weeks to a month to complete."

The Bandit, 1953

Much has been written about the aggressive machismo of George Quaintance's male figures. This is certainly an exaggeration! His men were masculine enough, but they looked anything but macho. Like photos of Quaintance himself, they exhibited a visible blend of male and female. He conveyed this blended look through languidly effeminate poses and gestures, hard bodies with soft and fluid curves, and androgynous-looking faces . . . not to mention those Brylcreem-slick Tony Curtis hairstyles! "George Quaintance's men did look more angrogynous," agrees Douglas Simonson. "He was into those soft, 'blend-y' kinds of lines." The impossibly butch, Straight-acting men that Tom of Finland favored were nowhere to be found in George Quaintance's world. You could never imagine one of Tom's leathermen camping it up, but picturing a Quaintance cowboy with a switchy walk wasn't hard to do at all.

The idea of Gay men being persons of neutral gender(an idea that many Gay men reject to this day) was strongly embodied in George Quaintance's paintings. The combination of subtle androgyny with less-subtle homoerotic suggestion is probably what gave his artwork its unique appeal. Yes, there were artists who could draw the male figure as well or better than he did, but few could make them look so indentifiably Gay! On the other hand, there were physique artists whose drawings of men looked so stereotypically Gay, they were off-putting. Quaintance knew how to put the right elements together. His ability to create images of men that came across as both masculine and homosexual was ahead of its time; and unlike most of today's homoerotic artists, he knew how to convey Gay male sexuality without needing to show males engaging in sexual activity. Whether Quaintance would have if he could have is a question worth pondering: Would have wanted to tamper with his winning formula?

Lake Apache, 1954

Quaintance's tantalizing way with male nudes became internationally popular among an underground community of Gay erotica collectors, and even though he's not as well-known as he once was, it has remained so. His nudes influenced nearly every physique artist who came after him, most notably Harry Bush, Etienne, Japanese erotic art legend Sadao Hasegawa, and Quaintance's most successful imitator, Tom of Finland. Finland, now recognized as the preeminent Gay erotic artist of all-time, is renowned for taking physique art into territory far more sexually explicit and aggressivley macho than Quaintance had ever dreamt of; even so, he was following a path that George Quaintance blazed.

It was his association with Physique Pictorial that made George Quaintance's reputation as a physique artist. His ads appeared right next to the contents page in early issues; many featured a dramatically-posed photo of himself, his well-developed biceps bulging out of a tight black sport shirt. (His marcel-waved hair was immaculate, of course.) He sold original paintings priced between $50.00 and $1,000.00, with photo prints and color slides at $1.50 a pop; a set of six slides was a bargain at $5.00(although these prices were considered rather hefty in the 1950s). A mere 25 cents would buy you a catalog of Quaintance model photos. He also penned occasional how-to guides on figure drawing for PP. His physique drawings graced every cover from November 1951 until October 1953, when Bob Mizer began opting for photographic covers. (The censorship uproar over "Aztec Sacrifice" may have precipitated this change.)

Aztec Sacrifice

By popular demand, Quaintance paintings graced the Fall 1956 and Fall 1957 covers. Tom of Finland had debuted in PP by that time, and the two artists would surely have competed for cover honors for the rest of the decade had it not been for Quaintance's untimely death. But Quaintance didn't limit himself to a single outlet: in addition to Physique Pictorial, his work was featured on the inside and outside of Adonis, Vim, Demi-Gods, Body Beautiful, Grecian Guild Pictorial, Your Physique and other '50s physique periodicals. He was so popular, all the muscle mag editors wanted to work with him. Some of them commissioned him to do paintings of major bodybuilders of the day like Everett Sinderoff, John Farbotnick and Steve Reeves, who went on to find fame as the definitive cinema Hercules. These cover paintings are so dynamic, they fairly leap off the page; they easily rank with his best non-commissioned work.

Hollywood-based "Art-Bob" and Andrew Kozak were early imitators of the Quaintance style, as well as his main rivals for space in Physique Pictorial. By 1955, Mizer seemed to be favoring the cartoonish style of "Art-Bob" over Quaintance's more sophisticated renderings, but by then the man from Shenandoah Valley had more mailorder customers than he could handle. "Business has grown to fantastic proportions in the last few months," he wrote to a friend in the early '50s. "I'm practically out of my mind trying to keep up with it!" In addition to the highly popular color slides of his oil paintings, Quaintance sold nude sculptures and male physique greeting cards. These latter keepsakes were the precursor of the Gay sex greeting cards sold today; the set of twelve 4 X 9 color images was marketed toward the end of 1957, shortly before his death. Among them is one of his campiest compositions: A drawing of an impish blond man whimsically posed naked inside a giant champagne glass. It's an excellent example of how George Quaintance liked to infuse his work with an unambiguously Gay sensibility.

Quaintance Calendar Boys

He almost always painted from photographs, and at any given time, a bevy of hunky male models were either disrobing or posing in his studio. His first regular model was Fred Boisiewick, who posed for early physique studies like "Crusader" and "Pearl Diver". Later on, the aforementioned Angel Avila became one of his favorite camera subjects. Other Quaintance models included British bodybuilder Ron Nyman, Jim Shoemaker, Jim Glasper, Bill Bredlau, Bob Kirkwood, Syrian emigré Ahmed Dene, Bob Jewett, Mexican model "Edwardo", George Coberly, Zaro Rossi and, infrequently, Quaintance himself, photographed by his lover, Victor García. He captured them all on canvas (and sometimes in bed, too) at Rancho Siesta, the studio he opened in Aztec Park, Arizona, sometime in 1953.

By then, George Quaintance had modified his personal appearance to reflect his interest in the Western man. He enthusiastically reclaimed his rural roots, adopting an early version of the Gay "clone" look which would become so popular in the 1970s: Boldy-colored western shirts, Levis, bandannas, and elaborately-tooled cowboy boots. His heart problems notwithstanding, he exercised regularly and maintained a trim and solid physique; all the better to show off the skintight clothing he increasingly favored. A strawberry blond toupée concealed what was left of his thinning brown hair; baldness wouldn't become a fashion statement for another 25 years or so, and at any rate, the former celebrity hairstylist couldn't bear to have anyone glimpse his bare scalp!

Red Dust, 1955
1955: RED DUST

The mailing address of Rancho Siesta was listed as Box 192, Phoenix, Arizona(zip codes had yet to be invented in the '50s). However, by 1957 Quiantance was again based in Los Angeles, listing his original Terminal Annex post office Box. Then, suddenly, he was gone. Bob Mizer announced Quaintance's fatal heart attack in the Winter 1957 issue of Physique Pictorial, shocking the many fans of his work. Mizer's obituary cited strain of overwork as the probable reason for his death, but the possibility of a serious drug addiction was also hinted at. He may have moved back to Los Angeles to seek treatment; the full circumstances surrounding George Quaintance's sudden demise have never been revealed and probably never will be. His body was cremated.  It was reported that no funeral was held, but Victor Garcia's nephew disputes this claim: He remembers attending the service with his mother.

His estate, including countless photographs, sculptures and approximately 60 oil paintings, was left to Victor García and García's other lover, Tom Syphers. Somehow, most of this material ended up in the Tom of Finland archives, where it was found by Richard Hawkins, a photographer friend of Quaintance. From the art collection of two Hawaiian brothers came near-complete set of color negatives. These treasures belonged to another friend of Quaintance's, and they've all been restored. They are the source of most of the Quaintance artwork now in circulation, and they're also the basis of a long-overdue Quaintance retrospective that Germany's Taschen imprint will publish later this year.

So much of what comes out of the Gay arts community these days can be classified as "gotcha" art. Labeled "queer art" by those who create it (an insult both to Gay people and to artistic traditions), it's designed to shock, and can be counted on to be heavy on explicit sexual content and negative stereotypes. The classic work of George Quaintance serves as a reminder that Gay art doesn't have to come across that way. In addition to being provocative, depictions of same-gender sexuality can be subtle, beautiful, noble, fun and altogether fine. Even more important, the male nude, rendered with his kind of exceptional skill, can be every bit as respectable and valuable as any female nude.

In the 1940s and '50s, nobody could imagine Gay visual erotica being shown in a mainstream gallery; now such exhibits happen all the time. In fact, a retrospective of physique photos taken by George Quaintance and Victor García recently had a showing at a Paris art gallery. The artist would no doubt have greeted this renewed focus on his work with both pleasure and disappointment; after all, he didn't make his name as a photographer. He would've wanted the attention focused on his oil masterpieces. A major Quaintance painting exhibition is certainly long overdue; there's no American physique artist who's more deserving of the honor.

Shore Leave, 1952

Thanks to Douglas Simonson, Ken Furtado 
and John Waybright.

See the complete surviving Quaintance Collection at:
Vintage photo of George Quaintance by Edwin Townsend, courtesy of the Finter-Salvino Archive.  Watch for The Art of George Quaintance, a deluxe hardcover volume to be marketed by Taschen Books this Christmas.