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 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.
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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 →
Great bed, eh? Maybe we should call it something like a temple of love. This is the bed of one of the great courtesans of 19th century Paris, Valtesse de la Bigne. Aside from her rich patrons, de la Bigne was the lover of several important artists, including Courbet and Manet, for whom she also modeled. Zola based the title character of Nana on her and described the bed (“a throne, an altar, where Paris came to admire her sovereign nudity” etc) in the novel. In short, it’s an amazing piece of furniture, and you can see it on our Shady Ladies of Paris tour this summer!
Here is another thing we will see on our Shady Ladies tour of Paris–one of our favorite images of a courtesan: Ernest-Ange Duez’s “Splendeur,” displayed at the Salon of 1874. It was originally part of a diptych, with “Misère” on the other side, showing the #courtesan in her later years, but “Misère” has disappeared. “Splendeur” portrays a courtesan at the *height* of her career and the height of fashion. The frizzy, unnaturally blonde hair, which might look tacky to us, was the absolute latest craze.
It was only in the 1870s that people started to be able to completely change their hair color, and women like the Empress Eugénie were the first to try it out. Indeed, the only thing that separates Splendeur from a well-to-do young lady is the fact that she is wearing too many of the latest fashions at once—that and her left eye lazily winking at the viewer….#Paris #Splendeur
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This is Mme. Du Barry–one of the most famous courtesans and royal mistresses of all time! Du Barry was the last of Louis XV’s official mistresses. Louis (it seems) adored her because she was so beautiful that she revived his flagging sex life. She ended her life on the guillotine, but here she is long before, dressed in the 18th century’s version of ‘casual Friday’: a simple gingham dress and straw hat–a style favored by Marie Antoinette, who famously loathed Mme. Du Barry and the racy side of French court life that she represented. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →