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.
Nasty Women of History
We are using the phrase ‘nasty women’ ironically: these are women whom misogynists would call ‘nasty.’ These are not a particularly important artistic theme in any culture, but they are nonetheless present in the museum to a surprising degree. There is fascinating material from the distant past: a gallery of statuary from the funerary temple of a female pharaoh—one of the Met’s great glories; lots of images of goddesses and female monsters from ancient Greece, where real-life women were quite repressed; a bust of the first Roman woman officially named Empress. But the core of this tour is the modern West, where from the 18th century on, while women certainly did not have equal rights to men, there has been a fairly steady trend toward more independence and rights for women. This is particularly clear in the museum’s French and American collections, where from the 18th to the 20th century, there are a surprising number of women artists, and also interesting women sitters, including even a woman scientist from 18th century France. There are also several paintings of women by women, in which women make subtle political points about the representation of women. In short, while the Shady Ladies is about a sexy side of life, the Nasty Women is about the forerunners of today’s feminists.
Madame de Pompadour
There is in fact something that could link the tours: many of the Shady Ladies—courtesans and particularly royal mistresses—were exactly what we mean by ‘nasty women.’ Certain courtesans were in a sense a kind of early entrepreneur, and a number of royal mistresses had a great deal of power. One woman, for instance, who was both a shady lady and a nasty woman (in the ironic sense in which we are using the phrase) was Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV of France from 1745 to 1764. Madame de Pompadour was a very important patron of the arts, and we argue that that should not be seen that as a frivolous, “feminine” activity. Instead, by patronizing the developing fashion industry of Paris and crafts industries such as the Sèvres porcelain factory, women like Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette carried out a kind of industrial policy, establishing a luxury goods industry that is still an important part of the French economy. But Madame de Pompadour also had substantial political power, if only behind the scenes: for a period, Louis XV reigned without a prime minister, and it seems that he relied on Madame de Pompadour’s advice.
As a result, Madame de Pompadour makes an appearance on both tours, although we see different works related to her on the two. But in general, we avoid the Shady Ladies on the Nasty Women tour simply because we have enough material for two tours (or more!), so there is no point in repeating things. And aside from Madame de Pompadour, the women on the Nasty Women tour were definitely not Shady Ladies, so it seems better not to include Shady Ladies and confuse the issue.
Shady Ladies Tour or Nasty Women
So in short, the two tours are very different: the Shady Ladies tour is more about the history of sexuality, Nasty Women about the history of gender. The fact is, however, that the Met is a fascinating source of material for women’s history and can easily support several separate women’s history tours. So come on both! Or if you have already seen the Shady Ladies tour, come on the Nasty Women; if it’s been a while, you could even take the Shady Ladies again, as we change the material over time. For more information, calendar, tickets, see: https://www.shadyladiestours.com/take-the-shady-ladies-tours/