I'm a native New Yorker and I've been going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a long-time. I've done scavenger hunts at the Met, the Costume Institute is like a second home, it's just a very special place, not just for me but for most New Yorkers. So when I heard about the Shady Ladies Tours of the Met (thanks to Instagram), well I had to know more. I mean Scandalous Women are my bread and butter, so finding someone else who loves them as well, well it was a no brainer.
The tours are led by Dr. Andrew Lear (that's him on the left), a leading scholar on the history of sexuality, and one of the foremost authorities on the erotic in Greek and Roman art. So you know he knows his stuff. The company offers several tours of the Met, including Nasty Women, Shady Ladies, Gay Secrets and Sexy Secrets of the Metropolitan. It was really hard to know which one to pick! I decided on Shady ladies, primarily because it wasn't sold out and I had planned on going to the museum on Sunday anyway.
The tour was fantastic, and well worth the cost ($59.00, $35.00 if you are a member of the Met or a student. First timers on the tour get an additional $10.00 discount). First of all you are getting an incredibly knowledgeable tour guide. Second, the Met can be a little bit overwhelming unless you know exactly where you are going. I can't tell you how many times I've wandered through rooms looking for the exit (or the bathroom).
The tour starts in the Greek antiquities section, which I confess I often skip when I go to the museum, to head to the American Wing to visit Madame X. Professor Lear takes you to see one of the earliest statues of Venus which is based on a Greek courtesan. By the way, he also helpfully distinguishes what the difference is between a mistress, a courtesan and a plain ole prostitute. For someone like me, who knows a great deal about these women, it was interesting to hear about them from an artistic standpoint. And I learned things about Degas that I sort of knew but it was amazing to hear it articulated out loud. Quite a few woman on the tour were unhappy to learn that the young ballet dancers in his paintings and sculptures were probably also courtesans. But as I pointed out, these girls were not making a great deal of money, so they had to supplement their income somehow. Knowing this, it gives a whole new perspective on some of his most famous paintings.
We also went to visit one of my favorite courtesans Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Long-time readers of the blog will remember the guest posts that her biographer Jo Manning wrote for Scandalous Women. On the right is her portrait painted by Gainsborough (there is also a portrait of Grace at the Frick Museum). She's fascinating, mistress of both the Prince of Wales (future George IV) and Philippe Egalite, Duc d'Orleans (if you haven't read My Lady Scandalous by Jo Manning, run and get a copy right now!).
One of the great things about the tour is that it doesn't feel like a lecture. Professor Lear is quite charming and personable, and he didn't seem to mind (or at least hid it well) when I opened my trap to give my two cents. Trust me, I've taken a lot of tours, and not every tour guide is quite so pleasant about it! Particularly when you tell them they are wrong (not that I had to do that with Professor Lear, he knows his stuff). Oops!
So even if you've been to the Met a gajillion times, I highly recommend that you take one of Professor Lear's tours. You will not regret it. And if you aren't planning on visiting New York anytime soon, there is still a way that you can get the benefit of Professor Lear's wisdom. Shady Ladies is planning their inaugural tour of Paris this July! I so want to take this tour. Hopefully Professor Lear will offer it again as well as say a tour of London?
If you don't want to take my word that Shady Ladies' tours are great, here is an article from the Huffington Post that just might convince you.