This painting portrays Saint Justina of Padua as a Renaissance fashion plate. The pearls, rubies, and emeralds sewn onto her clothing, cap, and hair tie were the mark of an aristocratic lady; her embroidered stomacher (the triangular piece covering chest and stomach) was the height of fashion, as were her elegant green sleeves (as in the song!), separate from her bodice, with the blouse pulled through the gaps in a style called ‘slashing’. Most noticeable to a modern eye is her amazingly high forehead. Continue reading →
When people look at the elegant portraits in art museums, they assume they are looking at dukes and duchesses. But often enough, they aren’t. They are looking at mistresses, illegitimate sons, kept boys, and courtesans. Courtesans are a particularly large theme in art. What is a courtesan? A kind of sex worker, but a sex worker so fancy that you can’t pay her. Continue reading →
The feminist concept of the “male gaze” is useful in art criticism. The concept originally comes from film studies, where it is used to discuss the fact that men traditionally controlled the camera, of which women were an object. Men certainly also controlled the brush through most of the history of Western painting, and the women in paintings generally acknowledge this. As the art historian John Berger said, women in painting don’t usually look out at the viewer: they aren’t considering the viewer, but considering how the viewer sees them. They have an inward gaze, rather than an outward gaze. But painters can also violate this “rule” (more a tendency really) to depict a woman who has power or confidence.
Two paintings that are diagonally across from each other at the Metropolitan Museum make this clear. On the one hand, we have Gérard’s portrait of the Princess of Talleyrand, a courtesan who became Talleyrand’s mistress and then his wife. She was considered very beautiful in her time and is dressed in the latest Empire fashions, and she looks down and to the side in her portrait. Her gaze avoids the viewer’s: she is absorbed in her own thoughts, or her own coquetry, it’s unclear which. Across the gallery is David’s double portrait of the great scientist Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne Paulze. Here the male inside the painting definitely does not control the gaze: he looks up at his wife questioningly, while she does not return his gaze (though she puts her hand on his shoulder with a gesture of intimacy unusual in painting). Instead she turns to look out directly and confidently (though not aggressively) at the viewer: it is she who communicates with the world on behalf of this couple. And in fact this portrays something real about this couple. Paulze had many public-facing characteristics that Lavoisier lacked: she spoke many languages and could inform Lavoisier about the scientific literature of the whole of Europe. And she was also his lab illustrator, explaining his/their experiments to the world through the visual arts. Look at the women you see in the art museum the next time you go. Do they look out at the viewer, or not, and why?
One of my favorite things to do in Paris—really—is explore the cemeteries. The most famous one is Père Lachaise, where a host of celebs are buried, including most famously Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. But it is also a great place for learning about the great courtesans of the Belle Epoque. As an example, Chopin is buried there, the lover of George Sand—a scandalous lady if ever there was one—and so is Colette, in whose novels, such as Gigi and Chéri, courtesans are a major theme. But the great cemetery for Paris courtesans is really Montmartre, which is also a lovely place to take a shady, quiet walk in central Paris—right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge —so we take our Shady Ladies Tours Courtesans of Paris tour there, as you can see in the feature photo. Continue reading →
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is of course one of the world’s great museums. It is also a great place for a women’s history tour. There are very few of the courtesans or mistresses that make up our Shady Ladies tour in New York: I suspect that the Boston collectors of the 19th century were too prudish to buy pictures on themes they knew were racy. But the museum has a great collection of what we’re calling (ironically) “nasty women“—feisty, ambitious women from many periods of history. Continue reading →
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is not as big as the Metropolitan, and it might not be possible to arrange all the theme tours that we can in NYC. However, it has some wonderful Shady Ladies in its collection. Indeed, it has a great prize: Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s iconic portrait of Madame du Barry, the last royal mistress of ancien régime France, whose famously seductive, almond-shaped eyes are the focus of the painting.
People often ask me what the difference is between the Shady Ladies tour and the Nasty Women tour—whether the themes are really different, whether in short they should go on both tours or only one. In fact, the difference between the two tours is very clear, and there is almost no overlap between them. The Shady Ladies tour is about royal mistresses and courtesans, fascinating categories of women that were prominent in cultures distant from our own—and which are major themes in the art of all those cultures, from ancient Greece to Edo-period Japan to Renaissance Italy to Belle Epoque France. The Nasty Women, instead, is about feisty, path-breaking women—women who had more power and/or independence than we usually think women in the past had. Continue reading →
Every Paris tour should include some major sights: even if you’ve seen them before, you can always see new sides. Plus some wonderful food of course. Our Shady Ladies Paris tour includes both of those, with a “Shady Ladies” tour of the Orsay Museum highlighting the racy sides of the collection (on the model of our well-known tour of the Metropolitan) and some truly excellent meals; also a tasting at the patisserie that is most famous for macarons. But we also include a bunch of sights in our Paris tour that you probably haven’t seen—lesser-known sights that even Parisians think it would be cool to see. Continue reading →
My esteemed colleague Mary Beard has posted an article about the five most powerful women in the British Museum, as a celebration of Women’s History Month. So since we are now doing a tour about that topic at the Metropolitan Museum, I thought I should answer with a post about the most powerful women in the Met. Because the Met actually has a lot of powerful women, from the most powerful woman pharaoh of ancient Egypt through women of the 20th century. And this year of all years, now is the time for some women’s history!