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?
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 →
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 →
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!
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We know them from work, family, public and private life—women who speak their mind, pursue their careers and even run for public office. They’re smart. They’re sassy. Some people call them “nasty.” But we say they’re strong. And to celebrate them (and Women’s History Month) Shady Ladies Tours is launching a brand new offering: Nasty Women of the Metropolitan. Continue reading →