The bed of one of the great courtesans of 19th century Paris, Valtesse de la Bigne.

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!

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Ernest-Ange Duez’s “Splendeur,” displayed at the Salon of 1874

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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Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara

Say the name “Lucrezia Borgia,” and what do you think of? Incest and poison are probably the first things that come to mind. Lucrezia was born (in 1480), supposedly an illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo de Borgia). And from that point on, she went from one nefarious deed to another, bearing an illegitimate son, engaging in incest with her father and/or her famous brother Cesare, poisoning people left and right—she supposedly had a hollow ring with poison-tipped pins she could use to prick her victims. In short, she was the original “nasty woman.” Continue reading →

Courtesans And Royal Mistresses: Madame Du Barry

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 →

How our art history tours about courtesans started

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 →

Meet Lady Emma Hamilton A Woman Of Great Beauty

Emma Hamilton The way from social obscurity to social stardom has traditionally been even narrower than the strait gate and narrow way to salvation. However, iconic looks, talent, intelligence, and a heaping helping of golden luck have been known to buy one’s way out and up.

Emma Hamilton was born in 1765, among the working poor. Ordinarily, the nearest such a girl would have come to the aristocracy would have been cleaning up after them. She was working as a servant in London at twelve; she moved on to a brothel, then an establishment known as the Temple of Health and Hymen. Her first protector was one Sir Harry Featherstonebaugh. Supposedly she helped entertain his companions by dancing naked on his table. She attracted the notice of the Hon. Charles Greville, nephew of Sir William Hamilton. Charmed, Greville commissioned George Romney to paint portraits of her and make the public aware of the iconic face. Romney became quite obsessed with her and produced numerous portraits that convey both the heat of his interest and his subject’s charisma. At nineteen she was also painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in a characteristic pose: a mischievous, meditative look over her shoulder, right hand delicately fingering her cheek. Continue reading →

Princess Louise of the UK

Victorian is almost a substitute term for joylessly prudish to many people. They are wrong; Queen Victoria relished sex with her protective, affectionate husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coberg-Gotha. The marital romance portrayed in The Young Victoria by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend is true to history. However, Queen Victoria disliked pregnancy, babies, and some children, including several of her own, with passion. Her criticism of the less-favored could be stinging in its candor as well as inaccurate. Her sixth child, Princess Louise, born in 1848, was among her less-favored offspring. Through much of Princess Louise’s childhood, the queen sincerely believed that her daughter was “backward.” Having inherited Prince Albert’s cheekbones and graceful bearing, though, Louise was the prettiest of the daughters. Certainly she was the most talented and daring, the one who would lead the life she desired. Continue reading →

courtesan in the Yoshiwara, Tokyo's pleasure quarter

Yoshiwara, the ‘pleasure quarter’ of the city of Edo

A couple of weeks ago I took a meander around the Met to see what new stuff was hanging–and what did I find? Lots of new courtesans! In particular, there is now a whole gallery of Japanese paintings of beautiful women–including a number of courtesans, such as this woman in a scroll from the 1780s by Isoda Koryusai. This painting seems to show the main street of the Yoshiwara, the ‘pleasure quarter’ of the city of Edo (modern Tokyo). A courtesan is promenading with her two assistants (or perhaps apprentices). She is the height of fashion, or perhaps overdone—as was apparently typical of these women—wearing multiple layers of elaborate kimonos, and the huge clogs which were typical of courtesans–clogs which made it impossible to walk naturally (a custom that reminds me of Chinese foot-binding). Continue reading →

Izumo no Okuni

Izumo no Okuni did not find her fame in the elite pleasure houses of Kyoto, where women with elaborate artistic educations provided their clients with the most rarefied pleasures of fantasy-femininity and the most pragmatic pleasures of the flesh. Okuni was a miko, or shrine maiden, at the Grand Shrine at Izumo, a location that gave her a name. Shrine maidens developed skills in shamanic dancing and, often, equal facility as sex workers.

In the dancing part, Okuni excelled. Evidently, like her sisters higher in Kyoto’s sex-work hierarchy, she got some form of artistic education. Or perhaps she was just observant, ambitious, and stunningly creative. Around 1603, she launched a career as a public performer—really, what present-day people might call a busker. She picked a space and started dancing for money and attention. As she earned both, her performances became more elaborate, with more dancers and more musicians and drummers to accompany them. Encouraged, she began to give her dances stories, often daring ones. Some of her dances evolved from traditional folk and religious dance sequences, but she ventured into satire—sometimes impersonating the Shinto priests she had served in the temple, sometimes decking herself out in the regalia of a Christian priest. Her cross-dressing and portrayals of male characters were part of the transgressive thrill she delivered. In one of her pieces, it’s still remembered, she disguised herself as a man paying court to a courtesan.

Her operation morphed into a full-fledged dance troupe, wildly acclaimed. The new fusion form she’d created needed a name, and the one it got was kabuki—one of those Japanese words most people know, even if the other two are sushi and geisha. It comes from kabuku, a verb that means to frolic or to get wild and outrageous. Since she performed in Kyoto during its jaded decadence and scandalized her public regularly, her dances must have had a wicked erotic verve. The red-lantern district of Kyoto was not the easiest place to be transgressive.

Vibrant pictures of Okuni, cross-dressed for a performance, pay tribute to her daring. Her statue in Kyoto probably doesn’t look much like her—it was, after all, erected in 2003. Better late than never, though, when it comes to commemorating a woman who vaulted over the barriers of her time, class, and gender in a society that encouraged women to stay in their places.