Fashion History in Art

We have been giving fashion history tours at the Metropolitan Museum for several months now, and the more we work on them, the more we see that fashion history is probably the biggest theme in the entire museum.  If you think about it, you might think that—human beauty—is the biggest theme in the art history.  But if you look carefully at the beautiful people in the museum, you will see that (aside perhaps from the Greek male nudes), the person’s features are only a secondary aspect of the images.  It isn’t their natural beauty that makes people beautiful in art.  Instead, the artworks focus on many other aspects of the beautiful person:  on hairdos and make-up and jewelry and clothing and accessories and shoes.  In short, human beauty in art consists not of beautiful features, but of costume or fashion. Continue reading →

Who was the greatest Shady Lady?

People often ask us who the greatest Shady Lady was. And it’s a hard question, because there are lots of possibilities: famous royal mistresses like Diane de Poitiers or Madame de Pompadour, famous courtesans like Marie Duplessis (the original of the Lady of the Camellias and La Traviata) or Grace Dalrymple Elliott (whose splendid portrait by Gainsborough reigns over the Metropolitan Museum’s English gallery), and #scandalous women of more modern times, like Josephine Baker or Marlene Dietrich. But if we have to pick ONE, then it might have to be….the same woman we would call the greatest “Nasty Woman:” Catherine II of Russia, generally known as Catherine the Great.

Catherine was one of the great rulers of time. Among many other things, it was she who expanded the Russian Empire eastward into places like Lithuania and south to the Crimea. She was also a real intellectual and art lover and one of the great arts patrons of the 18th century: for 2 examples, she maintained a 15 year friendly correspondence with Voltaire, and the Hermitage museum is based on her enormous private collections.
But today she is remembered in the popular consciousness for her active sex life. In fact, we call her a “Nasty Woman, ” because if you ask the man on the street, the one thing he will tell you is a crazy, misogynistic rumor, that she had a taste for sex with horses—a slanderous insult based on her long line of royal “favorites,” and perhaps on a view of Russians as barbarians (though in fact Catherine, born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, was from northern Germany and only came to Russia to marry her equally German cousin, the then future Tsar Peter III).
But she certainly did live a life of #sexual #freedom unimaginable for most women before the 20th century. In fact, we would say she carried on very much like a male monarch of the period, with a long line of lovers sharing her bed before and throughout her reign. It is usual to connect this to her unhappy early sex life: her marriage to Peter III was very unhappy and possibly never consummated (though it seems most likely that her successor, Tsar Paul, was her child by her husband, as he resembled him both in appearance and character). It may also have affected her when her predecessor (and aunt) Empress Elizabeth took her children away from her at birth and raised them herself while allowing Catherine very little contact.

But we think it is more likely that she simply decided that, having eliminated (whether intentionally or not) her husband and the only other plausible pretender to the throne, she preferred to reign herself and so never married. Among other things, with the possible exception of Grigory Potemkin (another brilliant and astonishingly effective person who is remembered largely for scurrilous rumors), her lovers were not at her level of intelligence, rationality, and/or practicality, so it was better for her to keep power in her own hands.
In any case, she carried on her sex life very much in the same way contemporary kings like Louis XV of France did: she was never without a lover, alternating between brilliant and capable men, like Potemkin—the equivalent, say, of Madame de Pompadour—and spoiled, handsome boy-toys, like her last lover, Platon Zubov, who was *40* years her junior—the equivalent of Madame du Barry.

The difference is that while Louis XV was a terrible king and substantially worsened the economic and financial crisis that led to the French Revolution, Catherine was a brilliant ruler who greatly increased her country’s size and power. And also, while people remember Louis’ mistresses as style icons, Catherine is remembered for her sex life, as if there were something wrong with her having one. Whereas instead, we honor her as the greatest of all the Shady Ladies.

Why were high foreheads once considered a sign of beauty?

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 →

Who are the elegant women in the museum’s portraits?

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”

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?

nasty women museum of fine arts

Nasty Women of the MFA Boston

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 →

Madame du Barry Shady Ladies Philadelphia Museum of Art

Shady Ladies of the Philadelphia Museum

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.

Continue reading →

Shady Ladies tour or Nasty Women?

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 →

Fun, lesser-known sights on our Paris tour

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 →

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