Andrew Lear’s Shady Ladies Tour is conceivably the most fun you can legally have in an afternoon at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two hour excursion spotlights an international variety of courtesans depicted in art from 5th Century BC Greece to 19th Century France. The tour I took passed through 4th Century Rome, 18th Century Edo period Japan, 16th Century Italy, 18th and 19th Century Italy, England, and France.
Knowledge of art history is not essential for entertainment and enlightenment. Lear shares a treasure trove of knowledge in casual, colloquial terms. Awareness of social mores is as comprehensive as that of who was sleeping with whom resulting in scandal, fall to poverty, or rise to power. It turns out there are visual signs that distinguish a whore from a prostitute, a prostitute from a courtesan, and at what hierarchic level the latter makes her way.
Our guide’s “transcultural definition of a courtesan is a sex worker so fancy you can’t pay. You’d court her with gifts. If they were fabulous and yourself not too pathetic, you might secure her favor.” Violetta of Verdi’s La traviata is horrified by the offer of money. What a wretched, insulting way to behave, the chorus sings – is the lady a whore?! Of course she is, Lear assures us, but there are rules. “These women were not only beautiful, they had talents – charming conversation, performing skills, some in Greece were thought to be philosophers…”
We’re lead with a gently curved arm resembling the queen’s wave. Lear quietly hums opera under his breath. The chronicler is eminently approachable and never stumped by a question. Crowded as the museum is on weekends, the 17 of us (it varies) never seem to be where everyone else is. Hearing is easy. We take no stairs, only an elevator. Some galleries have benches. There’s a rest stop midway.
Take a good look at what appears to be a Greek bowl and is really a wine cup. What are the figures doing? There’s no food. Observe a Praxiteles statue of Aphrodite modeled from the most famous courtesan of ancient Athens. Learn how Japanese entertainers differ in attire from geishas who were traditionally not taken to bed.
Mademoiselle Louise Delabigne (1859-1910) called Valtesse de la Bigne (a painting by Manet) was so popular, she was able to commission a custom bed for what would today be one million dollars. Does that image look like a courtesan to you?
We’re shown a Titian Venus. “Would Titian have slept with his models?” someone asks. “Too expensive.” Lear addresses Papal Rome of the Borgias, a bastion of courtesans who moved to Venice when Martin Luther came sniffing around. “Did a courtesan ever marry royalty?” “Rarely, but then Marcel Proust’s Swann married Odette.” (Swann in Love) A Gainsborough painting of a British courtesan who rose to fame and fortune even after being divorced elicits the segue that both Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles are descendants of royal mistresses.
The group is encouraged to compare Toulouse Lautrec’s lesbian whores (“in the 19th century, lesbians were cool”) to work by “bad boy” Courbet (a quoted comment by fan Ruth Westheimer/Dr. Ruth is priceless). We stand in a room of Degas to hear the truth about his dancers. You’ll never think of the ballerinas as anything but chorus girls again.
Our guide (there are two others) is candid, wry, nonjudgmental, immensely well and widely versed. I recommend the experience without reservation and fully intend to check out some of the others.
Andrew Lear has a B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from UCLA. As a multi-lingual young man, he garnered a fellowship to study comparison of ancient cultures in France as spending his college and grad school summers guiding tour groups around Europe. He then became the kind of classics professor we all wish we had, one that that dove deep into philosophy, history, linguistics, poetry, social history, art…“I cover the evidence…”
These are his bonafides. Leaving academia after a lifetime of teaching, the polymath found himself in New York City with an abundance of culture and imagination and no job. Two years ago, he founded Shady Ladies Museum Tours.
Top: Andrew Lear in front of Batoni’s Diana and Cupid. “It’s an anti-sexual allegory, about Diana stealing Cupid’s bow, so he can’t make people fall in love, but paradoxically, it’s a great example of the use of Classical mythology as an excuse for making erotic scenes in Western painting from the Renaissance though the 19th century.”
Shady Ladies Museum Tours
New York – The Metropolitan Museum: Shady Ladies, Nasty Women, Fashion and Beauty, Hidden Secrets (Scandals)
Boston – Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Philadelphia – Philadelphia Museum of Art
Paris – many museums over 4 days
Tours are two hours and contain up to 18 people. Egypt to the present, depending on the tour.
$59.00 adult, $49.00 senior, $39.00 students and Metropolitan Museum Members
Oscar Wilde Tours – Gay Cultural History – Greece, Italy, London/ Paris, Amsterdam, Ireland