Arts & Culture

The Hidden Scandals Behind the Met's Masterpieces

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Traditional museum guides can be a bit of a snooze—which is why the idea behind "Shady Ladies," a New York City-based tour company, is downright genius. Guides will take you behind the canvas of some of the Metropolitan’s most well-known works, and into the subversive world of the artist’s ulterior meanings and motives.

Shady Ladies founder Andrew Lear began the company after an illustrious career in academia where he worked as a Professor of Classics. The tours initially revolved around courtesans in some of the Met’s most popular paintings, in 2016. He has since expanded his subject matter to include financial corruption in Italy’s most well-known renaissance family, cardinals with secrets lovers, and much more. “We think of art formally. We always say: ‘look at the light’ but we never talk about what’s going on in the painting,” Lear says. “There’s a lot of information about art that no one tells you.”

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The company also offers tours in Paris, Boston, Philadelphia, or New York City.

Here’s a taste of the sort of taboo Professor Lear is privy to, and five hidden meanings behind some of the Met’s most beloved works.

The Roman Emperor Who Made His Boyfriend Antinous a God


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Hadrian, the well-known Roman emperor who called for border reform (sound familiar?), took a young male lover, Antinous. "You will see a bust of Antinous in almost every museum," Lear says. He was very handsome, had a reputation among the Christians, and was “the original Armani model.” He died mysteriously at 19 by drowning in the Nile, but he posthumously became a god when his ex-lover, Hadrian, declared him so. Worshipped for 300 years throughout the Roman empire as a cult figure, explains why so many depictions of him exist today.

The Vanderbilt Donation Considered "Bad Art," The Horse Fair, 1852


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This work was done by a famous animal specialist, Rosa Bonheur, who was allegedly a favorite of Queen Victoria. She was also a crossdresser in France 1798 which was illegal, but she appealed to police for special permission because she needed to be able to be comfortable at horse fairs and working with animals. You can see her smack in the middle of this painting, looking right at the audience, the only one in the group without a mustache.

Not Every Gilded Portrait Portrays a Blood-Line Aristocrat, Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, 1754


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She may look like just another aristocrat who commissioned her own portrait, but Grace Dalrymple (pictured) was one of the most successful courtesans of 18th century London and Paris. She dallied with such big men as King George IV and the Prince of Wales, and the French Duke d'Orleans. Other notable courtesans of that time? One Alice Keppel, whose relationship with the Prince of Wales would eventually lead to great-granddaughter: Camilla Parker-Bowles. Lear jokes that Camilla won over husband, Prince Charles of Wales, with "my great-grandfather was your great grandmother's mistress, why don't we give it a whirl?"

The Catholic Cardinal's Love Affair, Marcantonio Pasqualini Crowned by Apollo, 17th-Century


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Right at the entrance of the European painting collection, where you will find the Rembrandts and Caravaggios, a life-sized oil painting hangs against the entry wall that’s eye-catching for a couple reasons: First, its immensity, second, its gilded frame, and third, its wholly naked main subject whose genitals hang smack in the middle of the canvas. The painting features Marcantonio Pasqualini, a 17th-century Castrato (singer) who was considered an absolute sex symbol of his day. Lear says to envision, “a gender ambiguous popstar, an early Prince type.” He’s shown being crowned by the god of music, Apollo, who is naked. “I don’t understand what that means exactly,” Lear says of the positioning of the member-centric painting, “but the cardinal who commissioned this work was also most likely Pasqualini’s lover. So maybe it’s the memorial of the love affair between them."

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The Award-Winning Portrait With An Unsavory Subtext, Woman With a Parrot, 19th Century


When you enter the 19th Century French Painting collection, 
the first and largest work you'll see is this sprawled, naked woman. According to Lear, “Impressionists were the third-generation hipsters” of 19th century France, and the artist of the work shown, Gustav Courbet, was “a man the establishment loved to hate” because he portrayed women realistically– with pubic hair, cellulite, or in unflattering positions. This work, which eventually would give Courbet acceptance into an exclusive art show, is thought to be an acceptable painting of a woman in a classical style beloved by the time. The woman is seen playing with a bird with a huge smile on her face, both of which are thought to represent post-coitus.

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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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Leah Silverman
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