Have you ever been to New York?
Dream of going there? If you have been, you may or may not have heard of the now well-known Shady Ladies Tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)! If you aspire to go to New York, perhaps this is something to put on your to-do list! This article will give you the lowdown on what precisely a Shady Ladies Tour is as well as provide a historical analysis of two of the paintings you will see on the MET Shady Ladies tour.
What is the Shady Ladies Tour?
The Shady Ladies Tour company was launched in 2016, and the tour itself was designed by Professor Andrew Lear, a scholar on the history of sexuality. With a B.A. from Harvard and a PhD from UCLA, Professor Lear is one of the foremost authorities on the erotic in Greek and Roman art.
The tours take in a series of paintings at the MET which showcases famous courtesans and mistresses going back to the time of the Greeks, finishing with the modern-day era. What you may not know is that often such paintings (of courtesans and mistresses) outweigh those of Royalty!(1)
Hetaira – The Highly Prized Ancient Greek Courtesan
Included on the Shady Ladies Tour is a painting of the Hetaira. Hetaira is the ancient Greek word for a courtesan who is highly skilled and accomplished in musicianship.(2) They were also very well educated (unlike most of the other women of Athens who were confined to their homes), beautiful, and witty as well as financially independent.(3)
Prostitution was legal in Athens as long as an Athenian citizen did not practice it.(4) The Hetaira were mistresses of the Athenian elite who used to “hang out” at the symposium or drinking parties. Homosexuality and bisexuality were not frowned upon in Athens. Drinking and sex was a large part of the symposium. “Hetaira enjoyed an enviable and respected position of wealth and were protected and taxed by the state.”(5) The most famous of the Hetaira was Aspasia, the mistress of the great leader Pericles.”(6)
The Portrait of Madame XXX
John Singer Sargent was an American expatriate living in Paris who most famously painted the portrait of Madame X or socialite Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, the wife of French banker Pierre Gautreau.(7) This painting can be viewed on the Shady Ladies Tour as the MET owns it.
Virginie was well known for her beauty and rumoured affairs. The painting of Madame X was shown at the Paris Salon of 1884 and was critically and publicly denounced and considered quite scandalous.(8)
Why was it so scandalous, you may ask?
In the painting, Virginie has clothes on which by today’s standards seems perfectly acceptable. The reason why the painting caused so much controversy can be attributed to the fact that the picture was of a “high society” figure which clashed with the predominant bourgeois thinking of the time. “The whiteness of Virginie’s skin has an ‘aristocratic pallor’” and her pose was considered sexually suggestive.(9) The painter, John Sargent fled Paris for Britain where he took refuge – so great was that public and critical outcry to his Madame XXX portrait.(10)
(1)Lear, Professor Andrew, “Courtesans and Mistresses in Art.” Shady Ladies Tours
https://www.shadyladiestours.com (accessed 26th October 2018)
(5),(6) Gill, N.S, “Hetaira – The Greek Courtesans,” ThoughtCo, https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-hetaira-120993 (accessed 26th October 2018)
(3),(4)“Hetaria – Greek Courtesan”, Encyclopdedia Romana,
https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/hetairai/hetairai.html (accessed 31st October 2018)
(8), (10) Jones, Jonathon, “Madame XXX,” The Guardian,
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2006/feb/01/3 (accessed 31st October 2018)
(7), (9) Wikipedia contributors, “Portrait of Madame X,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Portrait_of_Madame_X&oldid=856423918 (accessed October 31, 2018).
(2) Wikipedia contributors, “Hetaira,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hetaira&oldid=846045438 (accessed October 31, 2018).