“Once upon a time this art was considered soft porn.” – Professor Andrew Lear
The oldest erotica genre can be found on Greek vases. That was the first informative gem I received while exploring the almost empty Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Friday evening. I was with about a dozen other curious minds, a small group of (mostly women) on the Shady Ladies Tour. My personal goal for joining the tour came from a deep feeling of frustration with this ridiculous notion that nudity and women sexuality are at an all time high today. As if no era has ever portrayed women sexuality more than now. And yet, even with all of this sex, seeing a woman’s nipple on Instagram is still considered taboo. So I went on the tour to discover how eroticism lived in the past and learned that courtesans were not only the great maestras of love but the catalysts for erotic female empowerment.
Led by Professor Andrew Lear, The Shady Ladies Tour gives an uncensored view of the world’s great art and gives “sex and sexuality their due as an important theme in […] culture.” According to the website, The Met Museum “happens to have an amazing collection of erotic works.”
For two hours we explored an assembly of courtesans, mistresses, and professional beauties throughout the ages.
Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from the tour:
– Marriages had seldom to do with love and more to do with estates and legitimizing children. So it was natural for men to find love in their mistresses since the most important word to fuel passion is “no.” And only women who don’t need you can say no to you.
– Courtesans are high end sex workers except you don’t pay them for sex, you court them; with gifts, with status, with opportunities.
– Although they have an ambiguous social structure, it is assumed that courtesans are high class or middle class. Ultimately they are very important to the elite and therefore to artists.
– In most cases, courtesans had a patron who recognized their intelligence and paid for their education (in art, literature, science, etc). Many courtesans opened Salons that hosted some of the world’s most brilliant minds. This solidified their place as important cultural purveyors.
– “Art excuses everything for us” is my favorite quote from Professor Lear. Even if the painter was respected, their work was still considered racy. Some of these portraits can be likened to the modern day “send nudes” text and were kept in hidden rooms behind curtains. Today they live openly on the walls of the Met Museum as “art.”
– During the Renaissance, the only way they could depict eroticism in paintings was through mythology. Because Christianity was prominent during that era, artists would reference bible stories to get some kinky nip slips in frame. Here’s one example of the “wardrobe malfunction in art” – look a boob.
– Madame de Pompadour’s La Toilette de Vénus portrait, in which she emulates the goddess of love, was part of a life long marketing campaign. You can compare her to an Instagram model with over 500K followers. Her ultimate goal? To reign as the best mistress of all time and win the King’s heart.
– Gustave Courbet was terribly scandalous, partly for painting women with their flaws (namely cellulite and body hair, *gasp*). So he decided to send a big F you to the establishment by painting this sprawled out beauty playing with a parrot i.e. a symbol for male genitalia. Her nipples are erect and mouth agape to indicate arousal. In 1866, it became the artist’s first nude to be accepted in the Paris Salon. Out of spite he sold it to an American collector who later donated it to the Met Museum.
The overall theme during the Shady Ladies Tour was to not only examine the power of sex but also the power these women claimed for themselves. Were they objectified? Were they victims of the male gaze? Or rather, were they willing collaborators, basking in their glory as the embodiment of beauty, desire, sex and independence. These shady ladies refused to accept traditional notions of womanhood and took full ownership of their life and themselves.
I like the idea that a women can be sexual and empowered at the same time. There really is no true archetype for feminine propriety. Women are transformative and can take on many forms – crude, prude, nice, naughty, there are no limits. This doesn’t take away from our esteem or strip us of our value, it gives dimension to our humanity.
And what’s the return on investment for living life on your own terms? Glory. Despite being deemed scandalous, vulgar, inappropriate and loose, these women’s legacy live on in one of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions. Ultimate squad goals.
Learn more about The Shady Ladies Tour here.