Artist Attack! Gluck Was Subverting Gender Norms Before It Was A Thing

Art Attack Month:

0. 1/28/2012 – Art Attack Call for Submissions, by Riese
1. 2/1/2012 – Art Attack Gallery: 100 Queer Woman Artists In Your Face, by The Team
2. 2/3/2012 – Judy Chicago, by Lindsay
3. 2/7/2012 – Gran Fury, by Rachel
4. 2/7/2012 – Diane Arbus, by MJ
5. 2/8/2012 – Laurel Nakadate, by Lemon
6. 2/9/2012 – 10 Websites For Looking At Pictures All Day, by Riese
7. 2/10/2012 – LTTR, by Jessica G.
8. 2/13/2012 – Hide/Seek, by Danielle
9. 2/15/2012 – Spotlight: Simone Meltesen, by Laneia
10. 2/15/2012 – Ivana, by Crystal
11. 2/15/2012 – Gluck, by Jennifer Thompson


peter, the girl

I’ll be honest: I don’t know much about visual art. I mean, I’ve seen it. I’ve spent time wandering the rooms of the Tate looking thoughtful. And I’ve done my share of staring at naked saints on Italian mezzanines. I’ve never cried about that kind of art. But I’ve come to realise that the times I have had feelings about it have been when I knew a little bit about the person behind it. That’s why Vasari wrote The Lives of the Artists, right? Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear wouldn’t be so great if we didn’t know lead-poisoning made Van Gogh sever his ear and give it to a prostitute. And Tracy Emin’s sketch of a woman masturbating probably wouldn’t have caused so much fuss if we didn’t expect to see her staggering around Soho at 4 a.m., with a half-empty bottle of red and her left boob hanging out (that actually happened). So with that in mind, there’s someone I think you should really know about (if you don’t already). Her name is Gluck and she might be someone you’d have wanted to sleep with if you’d been alive in the twenties.

I only know about Gluck because once I got lured into a gay walking tour that went by her house. Then I saw a self-portrait. Then I started reading the internet. And although there’s not much out there about her, Gluck’s life and work are relevant. Why? Because they are among the only visible things of that time that probably represent YOU, had you been a queer Englishwoman before the Second World War happened.

Gluck is a bit like the Gertrude Stein of the oil-paint world, in that she was strong-willed, androgynous, and a bit rude. She also had a studio where lots of lesbians used to hang out. She is brilliant because she ignored pretty much every social rule about gender by doing a lot of things that were considered inappropriate for a woman of that class and time. Also, her paintings are really good.

She was born Hannah Gluckstein in 1895. That means she was born in the Victorian times, when women had almost NO rights and the suffragette movement was only just starting to happen. Her father was an Englishman who owned the J. Lyons and Co. coffee empire, her mother was an American opera singer, and her brother grew up to be a conservative politician. In other words, they were rich and conventional.

No surprises that they wanted her to first get educated, then get married. But she found her way to art school instead. Not only that, she cut off all her hair and started wearing men’s clothing. By the time she’d finished school she had abandoned her family name completely, and answered to nothing other than Gluck. This was because she wanted to be known by her art and not by her gender. On the back of publicity prints of her paintings she wrote “Please return in good condition to Gluck, no prefix, suffix or quotes.” And she even resigned from a prestigious art society because someone had called her Miss Gluck on a letterhead.

This woman was a fighter. And the attitudes people had towards her are still really resonant today; walking around London in tailored shirts and gentleman’s shoes, her father thought it was all just a pose. And her mother put it down to a kink in the brain. But it didn’t stop them from giving her a huge private income that allowed her to have a house in London and a studio in Cornwall.


There she spent time painting and (I like to imagine) having lots of girl-sex. Romaine Brooks even came over from Paris to visit and paint her portrait. The painting is called Peter, a young English girl and it’s really awesome (see top image). Not only does Gluck look hot in the portrait, it probably made people of that time revaluate their conventional ideas about gender by bringing androgyny a tiny bit closer to the mainstream.

Gluck painted everything. In Cornwall she painted landscapes; in London she painted party scenes from the dance floor of the Pavilion. She was famous for her portraits of women and her beautification of their sass and arrogance in a society still mostly confined to good behaviour. When she started an affair with the famous florist Constance Spry, Gluck started painting flower arrangements. And during the war she painted soldiers shooting pool or just hanging out.

We should definitely salute her. She defied her family’s conservatism, was openly out, didn’t give a fuck what society thought about her gender identity, and she made some incredible art. And if that wasn’t enough, she seems to have had a list of sexual conquests en ratio with Shane’s (given the not-that-progressive nature of that era as a whole). One of her most famous paintings is called Medallion, a celebration of her marriage to socialite Nesta Obermer.

gluck's big love, nesta

As it’s not lawful to get gay-married in 2012, we have to assume this marriage was more figurative. Nesta used to call her Dear Tim or Timothy Alf, which is cute. But eight years later she broke it off on account of the fact Gluck was getting demanding and possessive.

The sad thing is this: I do not think Gluck aged well. She became cantankerous and her confidence turned into arrogance. She was allegedly totally heartbroken about Nesta, which is something that didn’t stop her pursuing Edith Shackleton Heald (the first female reporter in Britain’s House of Lords) almost immediately. The two quickly shacked up together in Edith’s country estate and spent the next 30 years in a turbulent relationship that made Gluck stop painting and disappear from the public eye. Instead of making art, she started a 10-year war with commercial paint manufacturers, insisting there be a higher fixed standard of art materials available. Luckily for us, she did do one more show before her death in 1978. Instead of party scenes and women, the show was full of love-loss, wasted years and death; the most famous painting is a decaying fish-head entitled Rage, Rage against the Dying of the Light.

i like to think this self portrait is gluck saying "think i give a fuck?" to a bigot

It’s a real shame that Gluck is not better known outside the art world. Her life and work is a significant (albeit small) slice of our history. Even if she died sad, she had a pretty remarkable life, being a queer woman subject to the same attitudes and issues that we face almost a century later. Given the time she was incredibly brave, and so completely at ease with her own sexuality that I think she deserves a little bow from all of us.

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Jenn has written 3 articles for us.


  1. The title of her last work, “Rage, Rage against the Dying of the Light,” comes from a poem by Dylan Thomas called, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” He wrote it about his father dying, so it’s interesting Gluck did this painting towards the end of her life.

  2. Could somebody explain to me how this isn’t gay appropriation of trans history? The whole going by a male name and refusing female pronouns and prefixes seems to look like a trans guy in pretty much every way.

    • Also, if Gluck got so extremely perturbed at people calling them a girl why are we using female pronouns for them? That seems more backwards than their friends in the late 19th century.

      • “And she even resigned from a prestigious art society because someone had called her Miss Gluck on a letterhead.”

        this just seems so wrong, and I’m drunk waiting on this girl to call me back so we can go make out so I’m overposting but this makes me so sad for someone who’s still being remembered so much later and is still being misgendered.

        • You’re right, Cath. It would be much more appropriate to refer to Gluck using a gender-neutral pronoun (I’m going to use “ze” here). If Gluck were still alive today, ze might have begun to identify with one or more of the terms that are presently emerging to more accurately reflect the nuances of trans* orientations. But though we’ll never know if ze might have identified as genderqueer, agender, transmasculine, or any other identity, calling zir “she” by default is definitely bad. Glad to see someone speaking out against misgendering.

    • Gluck very well may have been androgynous–“Please return in good condition to Gluck, no prefix, suffix or quotes” sounds like a distaste for pronouns or anything signifying an obviously male or female gender identity.

    • Yes, good point.

      I had all these thoughts when reading about Gluck initially. Apart from Souhami’s book that Emily mentions below (Souhami uses the ‘she’ pronoun when referring to Gluck), there seems to have been very little written about her.

      As far as I understood it,the name ‘Gluck’ was chosen as a genderless art-world identity due to the belief it is the painting that matters, not the gender of the artist. Due to the unfortunate lack of information, and an absence of any publicised personal writings (that I could find), I guess we’ll never know for certain exactly how Gluck chose to identify. I’m afraid without knowing for sure I just used the same pronoun used in other writings.

      If that game where you bring a dead person back to life for a dinner party was something that could actually happen, it would be great to talk to Gluck!

  3. I read Diana Souhami’s biography of Gluck a couple of years ago– It’s called simply ‘Gluck: A Biography’, which I think Gluck would have approved of. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in reading further (or most of Souhami’s other books, actually. She covers several of the prominent lesbians of the period, with a nice mix of easy-to-read and academic rigour).

  4. i went through a giant slightly gloomy radclyffe hall phase years ago so this is super interesting! and brings back memories of being a strange kid

  5. I need to chime in here because of the pronoun use. The painter PETER GLUCK was one of the earliest forms of a female-to-male transsexual! Gluck was a HE, not a SHE.

    What a horrible way to write about a great painter, by insisting on using pronouns which incorrectly and disrespectfully describe PETER Gluck.

    • all in all this discussion about the correct’ gender pronouns to use is very interesting.

      to address helen ^ according to what little i have be able to read and research gluck was not known publicly as ‘peter gluck’, contrary to what tumblr says, but rather called ‘peter’ only by close friends. sidenote radclyffe hall was known to friends as ‘john’, but she did use female pronouns for herself and was publicly written about with ‘miss’ as prefix.

      which gender pronouns either gluck or radclyffe hall would prefer if they were alive today is obviously impossible to say, but gluck was referred to by friends/acquaintances/contemporaries as ‘her’ and ‘she’ in correspondence, so it seems that biographers and historians have just continued in that vein, correct or not.

      without personal confirmation along any spectrum of gender identity possible one could always go the somewhat unwieldy route that gluck’s wikipedia article has taken and not use ANY gender pronouns at all! :)

      • What a callous and ignorant and irrational comment to make.

        Because he only referred to himself as he with close friends, it doesn’t count!


  6. If only Peter with “close” friends is that not enough?!

    Because he was not “out” fully with others did not negate the truth of who he was.

    You are insensitive to the reality of the situation, twisting it to excuse ignorance and callous behavior.

    • did i say that it was correct that biographers have referred to gluck with female pronouns? no i did not. i was merely postulating as to possible reasons for it and am in no way defending it.

      did i personally refer to gluck with female pronouns? no i did not. so don’t assume that i am using female pronouns for gluck by default. neither do i think that male pronouns are therefore the only other default.

      my reason for using the ‘john’ radclyffe hall example is that even though she referred to herself with a male name she still used female pronouns. i am not saying that gluck did this (at least until i get my hands on some correspondence and more information) but a male name doesn’t necessarily extrapolate to a 100% male gender identity, does it? there is such a thing as a spectrum, yes? gluck did refer to themselves as nesta’s husband, but then so did gertrude stein with regard to alice b. toklas.

      i prefer to find out each person’s personal preference before projecting our current cultural assumptions and terminology on a previous period of time. (hence the continuing reading i am doing; i do not profess to know everything.) particularly given that masculine garb in the 1920s was important in fashion for ALL women, and there was a wide spectrum of female masculinity at the time, as Laura Doan has written in her essay ‘Passing fashions: reading female masculinities in the 1920s’.

      i am attempting to discuss this in an academic fashion but if you insist on dismissing this as an acceptable form of critique and benevolent sharing of information i will not continue. as i said before i am making zero assumptions without looking more academically into the matter.

  7. Wow,
    Pretty in depth conversation here. Let me lighten it up a bit.
    Last post was over a year ago.
    I stumbled on to your site as I was trying to research a painting I picked up a few years back. It is what appears to be oil on black cloth, silk possibly, wrapped on a piece of 1/8″ press board or dense paper. Subject of a vase of flowers (mums I think) on a table. Apprx 12″ x 16″.
    It is signed L.L. Gluck on front, very low, it is also signed on the back with a pen, says, Painted 1927, under it is,
    Linnus, Linis Lirris, Lirces, or Lorcis L Gluck. The L in first name is scuffed somewhat, but is an L, appears to be 5 letters following, possibly 6.
    If anyone has any info, it would be greatly appreciated,
    I would happily post a pic or two if there is a way.
    Thank you, and have a great day.
    Michael B.

  8. Hello once again,
    I now believe this oil painting to be directly on board. There is a strip of fabric, appears to be silk, that I thought was stretched over and around edges of board by about 1/2 inch.
    It now appears to have been added originally or after to insulate painting from glass.
    Sorry about that, I should have looked more closely the first time around.
    Michael B.

  9. Pingback: Autostraddle’s Art Attack! | Melissa Huang

  10. Wow seems you’ve already covered Gluck who I just heard about today.
    Historical figures are confusing. Gluck does seem like a transman/nb person to me but who knows? At the time all Gluck likely knew of in this vein (being a masculine afab person attracted to women) was being a lesbian (or ‘invert’ to be accurate about the offensive language of the time).

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