Scandalous Secrets Art Museum Tours

Great art is full of hidden meanings—and more often than not, they’re all about sex.

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About Our New Museum Tour

Great art is full of hidden meanings—and more often than not, they’re all about sex. Broken eggs symbolizing lost virginity…a lute standing in for a man's desires … a lady’s slack shoulder strap suggesting adultery… Of course, polite society rarely allowed sex to be presented explicitly. But throughout the centuries, artists have used sly suggestions and concealed codes to sneak around society’s rules, leaving future generations magnificent works whose double meanings are waiting to be discovered.

Join us on this tour of the Metropolitan Museum that shows how artists snuck sex past the censors—to the delight of their audiences. You’ll learn about:

  • The sex taboos of ancient Greece (so different from our own!)
  •  How the Renaissance brought desire back into plain sight
  •  The Bible as a source for moral instruction…and erotic imagery
  •  Paintings that warned against vice—by depicting vice!
  •  And artists who risked their careers by depicting scandalous themes

And you’ll see things that you never imagined existed in art. From crazed women worshiping the god Bacchus to Parisian prostitutes on their work break, the Metropolitan is a treasure house of art works that tell us so much about sex, desire and what it means to be human.

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Nydia, Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii,
Randolph Rogers, 1853-4

Nydia is a character from a very popular 19 th century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. Rogers’ statue was very popular too: there were 167 copies in the US, andeven today, it appears on both our Met and MFA tours. Nydia is using the unusually acute hearing caused by her blindness to try (in vain, of course) to lead her friends to safety: she is thus both altruistic and brave but pitiable and doomed. Add in her entirely gratuitous naked breast, and the statue elicits an exciting combination of admiration, protective feelings, and sexual attraction….

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Merry Company on a Terrace,
Jan Steen, 1673-5

This is one of the many 17 th century Dutch scenes on a moralizing theme. But as is often the case with Steen, he doesn’t make it look so bad. In any case, the sexiest part is right in the foreground: the mistress sits looking at the viewer invitingly, with one breast rising out of her bodice where two pink roses are loosely pinned, lifting her apron off her lap and holding an overturned wineglass in her right hand. Her left elbow leans on the thigh of a young musician who holds an extremely phallic lute in almost the position of an erect penis….

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The Love Letter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard,
early 1770s

The sumptuous fabrics really catch the attention, but at the heart of the painting is a woman’s face looking slyly at the viewer. Or is there someone else in the scene with her? Her dog is looking in the same direction as she is, so perhaps there is someone there. Perhaps the man who gave her the bouquet of roses she is holding? There is a note stuck in the bouquet. Perhaps she has just read it, and she is looking at the author? And if so, what does her face express? Is she inviting? Coy?

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