On a Sunday afternoon, a small group of visitors gathers at the feet of the stone pharaoh in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are there to meet Dr. Andrew Lear, who organizes a tour of “shady ladies” at the Met. What’s a shady lady? Consider the women you see sketched in French paintings, depicted on ancient Greek bowls or carved out of Roman marble—some weren’t as demure as they may seem. Many of them were courtesans, glamorous and seductive. Some were mistresses. A few pioneered rebellious movements. They all have stories. And that’s where Lear comes in.
The Shady Ladies tour presents art through a queer lens and, like Lear’s other offerings, takes an informative and often hilarious jaunt through history. Lear, an openly gay art historian and professor, is disarming and charismatic, determined to turn centuries of art into easily digestible vignettes.
His other popular tour is Gay Secrets of The Met, a two-hour examination of the hidden queer lives and stories behind the paintings and sculptures. If you want to learn about the love affairs, secret longings and unabashed homosexuality depicted in the museum’s collection of artworks, Lear has the details.
The Shady Ladies tour starts in the Met’s Greek and Roman art hall, with visitors huddling around ancient wine glasses (actually bowls). The bowls’ surfaces depict young naked boys and half-dressed prostitutes in bed with married upper-class men. Just as we count on People magazine today for a glimpse of how the 1 percent lives, ancient Greeks used these wine bowls to reflect the lives of their rich and famous citizens.
From there, the tour heads to the Roman Sculpture Court, where Lear points out a marble statue of Aphrodite that resides next to busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his teenage male lover, Antinous. Lear’s recounting of the men’s relationship—highlighted as well in the Gay Secrets tour—will leave you wondering why the story doesn’t have its own HBO series (though it does have a new opera by NYC-based singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright).
The walk proceeds to old-world Japan, where the discussion centers on geishas and the pleasure centers located just outside the walls of many great cities. After a brief stop in Britain, the tour ends in France with an examination of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Sofa, a blandly titled painting showing two lesbian sex workers sharing a loving gaze, followed by a look at Degas’ paintings of ballerinas. Closer inspection reveals that the dancers’ angelic appearance may somewhat belie their virtuousness. It’s a fascinating end to a free-flowing journey that’s fun, occasionally poignant and a refreshingly different way to experience the museum’s expansive collection.