People often ask me how I came up with the idea of giving art history tours about courtesans. There is a short version of that story and a long one. The short one would start with the fact that I have given art history tours of the Metropolitan Museum for a long time. I gave them for students when I was teaching at Columbia and NYU. Last spring I started giving a gay history tour of the Met, which we call “Gay Secrets of the Metropolitan.” And as I gave it, I started noticing how many paintings of courtesans there are in the museum.
Just as an example, my gay tour ends with this massive painting: The Horse Fair, by Rosa Bonheur. Bonheur (the great animal painter of 19th century France) was a lesbian. In fact, the grave monument that she shares with two of her girlfriends features in my tours of Paris. Like many lesbians up to the early 20th century, she cross-dressed. And she has placed herself, in a man’s clothing, right in the middle of her painting. In fact, you can hardly miss her: with a rearing white horse’s head just behind her and a man making a dramatic gesture in front of her, she is the natural focus of attention. Also she is the only person in the whole scene without facial hair.
Art history tours about courtesans
But on your way to see the horse fair, there is another painting that occupies a whole wall: Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot. This represents a nude woman, in a lavish setting, getting aroused as she plays with a pet bird. It is a mysterious painting. She’s alone and doing something private, but she seems to be spread out for the viewer’s pleasure. Even her hair is spread wide out on the floor. Perhaps the key to the scene is the bird, as birds often symbolize the penis, as in the expression “flipping the bird.” Indeed, given the context of 19th century France, the most likely explanation is that she’s in a bordello, putting on an enticing show.
As I noticed more and more of these women, I realized I could design a tour about them. First of all, it’s a fun topic. But it’s also interesting for people, because they are dimly aware of the theme without realizing how important it is in art. Plus, by taking people through the museum and showing them a few key works in a number of galleries, it helps them orient themselves in this bewilderingly large museum.
Courtesans in ancient Greece
But there is a longer answer to the question. The fact is that I was aware of courtesans because of my earlier career as a scholar of ancient Greek. Courtesans, hetaeras in ancient Greek (companions), occupied an important role in Greek culture. They were a higher class of sex worker, prized not only for their beauty but also for their education and wit. They entertained Greek men at the late-night parties, called symposiums, which were the center of elite Greek social life. And Greek men courted them with enormously valuable gifts—clearly distinct from the payment made to a prostitute.
There were particularly famous hetaeras. One woman called Phryne, for instance, in 4th century Athens, was said to be the model for Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, the first female nude in Greek sculpture. And there are many of them portrayed on painted symposium ware. This one on a wine cup in the Met is a great example. Reclining next to her patron, she is clearly engaged in flirtation, not anything too raunchy.
Courtesans in opera
And I was also aware of them from the opera. Many of the great operas are about courtesans: La Traviata, for instance, also Manon Lescaut, and Madama Butterfly. If you think about La Traviata, Violetta is clearly no ordinary prostitute. First of all, she gives up prostitution to live with Alfredo in a household that she supports with her savings. But when she runs out of money and returns to her patron, the baron, still no-one regards her as a prostitute. Indeed, when Alfredo has a tantrum and throws money at her, the stage erupts in shock. His father even sings an aria, saying that no real man who would insult a woman. So….what is she if not a prostitute? She is a sex worker, but the mere suggestion of payment is insulting. She is, in short, a courtesan.
So I guess when I started noticing them in the Metropolitan, I was ready to put 2 and 2 together. These women were a subject of fascination in many cultures, and they are a major theme in art history. They are a great theme for art museum tours, at the Metropolitan Museum, as well as the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and so on. And if you add in the closely related theme of royal mistresses, such as Madame de Pompadour, and other scandalous women, such as Sargent’s Madame X, the Shady Ladies will lead you on an interesting path through every great art museum.