SHADY LADIES OF THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
Since 2014, Shady Ladies Tours has been lighting up the Metropolitan Museum in New York with its fascinating tours about women. From politics and power to fashion and seduction, Shady Ladies has given museum goers the real deal about women in art. And now it’s Philadelphia’s turn.
With our newest offering—Shady Ladies of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—we’re letting Philly in on the secret that art can be fun. We don’t dismiss form and style, but we do concentrate on those things that drive so much of art: the backstories, about sex, power, ambition and scandal. As our founder, Professor Andrew Lear, notes, those galleries you think are full of queens and duchesses are actually showing you mistresses and courtesans.
In Philadelphia we’ll follow all three themes we cover in New York: “Nasty Women” who were powerful and ambitious; Fashion and Beauty through the ages; and, of course, the original Shady Ladies—mistresses, prostitutes, courtesans and seducers—who slept their way to the top. You’ll see a scene from the Dutch Golden Age of a quack doctor treating a pregnant prostitute; a portrait of Madame Du Barry, one of the most famous royal mistresses of all time; a Mary Cassatt canvas that shows clearly how revolutionary her paintings of women’s lives were; and so much more. Taken together, the works on this tour will paint a tableau of women’s lives through the centuries. They’ll give you a whole new perspective on what it means to be a woman today by showing what it meant to be a woman back then.
So get on your walking shoes and whip out your lorgnettes. With Shady Ladies of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you’re going to enjoy a tour unlike any you’ve ever been on!
Thomas Couture, The Thorny Path, 1873.
This is an allegorical painting, representing the effects of the courtesan on French society of the Belle Epoque. A topless courtesan surrounded by flowers drives a carriage led by four enslaved representatives of society: a flabby drunken middle-aged man, a soldier who looks down in shame, and two young men lost in poetic dreams. The path the four are on is strewn with rocks and thorny thistles, while a bust of a bearded man looks on contemptuously, resting on a plinth that bears the artist’s signature. Clearly the artist is telling us that courtesans are driving society down the wrong path—but the guilt seems to rest with the men, whose inadequacies cause them to fall under her spell.
Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, Madame du Barry, 1781.
This is a portrait of Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s last mistress—indeed the last official mistress (maîtresse en titre) of a French king ever. It is one of three portraits of her by the artist, Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was one of the most fashionable portrait painters of the period. Indeed, given du Barry’s considerable political power, this is a relic of a period when active women were surprisingly prominent. The portrait shows du Barry as a woman who had the air of youth despite being 38. She is dressed in the new informal styles promoted by Marie Antoinette and has entirely unlined pink skin along with the suggestively almond-shaped eyes for which du Barry was famous.
Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, 1660-1665
A doctor is checking the pulse of a young woman; both his posture and his facial expression seem to express shock. A ribbon burning on a brazier tells us what her ailment is: this was a quack pregnancy test of the period. Perhaps her pulse is quickening because of the entry of a worried-looking young man—presumably the father—at the door. The other figures do not seem to take her problem seriously, in particular a young man who grins while holding a fish above her, making a joke or playing a trick. Perhaps there is a moral message here: this is what comes of joking around. Or perhaps the scene is taking place in a brothel.