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 →

Courtesans of Paris tour

Courtesans of Paris tour—in the cemetery!

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 →

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.

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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 →

The Five Most Powerful Women in the Metropolitan Museum

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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“Nasty Women” are Everywhere—even the Metropolitan

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 →

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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