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.
Allegory of the Shady Ladies’ Power
Two 19th century paintings take a critical view of French sexual culture. One is Thomas Couture’s “The Thorny Path,” an allegorical painting in which a topless courtesan drives a carriage led by four men, representatives of various decadent parts of French society. The front right “horse,” for instance is a flabby older man wearing a wreath of ivy leaves that marks him as a worshiper of Bacchus, i.e. a drunkard; the front left “horse,” in his medieval bard’s costume, represents the naivety of a young lover who knows love only from poetry. The painter’s signature is on the bust of a bearded Greek god that looks angrily out on the scene.
A menacing sex scene
Degas’ painting is more mysterious. Who are the man and woman in this scene, and what is going on? Certainly, there is not much communication between them, as the woman is turned away, and the scene looks threatening, because the man is leaning against the door, as if to block it, and seems to tower over the woman. They do not seem to be married, because there is only a single bed in the room. But the way the woman’s shift hangs down over her shoulder seems to indicate something sexual has happened. Her clothes are strewn about the room, and there might be stains on the bed. Might it be a prostitute with a customer? Some of Degas’ friends referred to the painting as “the rape,” and it might indeed represent a rape scene, but it is mysteriously menacing rather than clear.
Pregnancy in a bordello?
The museum also has a number of paintings on what at Shady Ladies Tours we call the “sexy secrets” theme: paintings that remind us that titillation was one of art’s goals in the centuries before photography. In this case, the scene is perhaps as humorous as titillating. A doctor is examining a young lady in the middle of what seems to be a party. It is clear what is wrong with her, as there is a ribbon smoldering on a brazier at her feet—a 17th century quack pregnancy test. The doctor is checking her pulse and seems alarmed. Maybe she has noticed the worried-looking young man coming in through the door: could that be the father? But no-one seems to take her situation seriously. Instead, the man holding a herring in the air and laughing seems to suggest that it is a joke. Could that be because this is a bordello scene?
As you can see, even if it’s not as big as the Met, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has some great paintings on the Shady Ladies theme or themes. Perhaps some day we could put them together with other women’s history themes and do a Philadelphia tour? Stay tuned…. The Shady Ladies message—that art is more sexy and interesting and fun than you were led to believe— applies to almost *every* museum!
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