Nasty Women at the Met
A tour that focuses on the powerful female subjects and artists in the museum
There’s a saying in the art world: if you’re a woman who wants to make it into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, take off your clothes. Only five percent of the artists in the museum are women — though art featuring women in various states of undress is plentiful — but Andrew Lear, a professor of classics at NYU, is out to disprove that complaint. Lear’s company leads LGBT- and sex-focused explorations of the Met, and he launched a new one last week to celebrate the “nasty women” subjects and artists that do exist in the museum.
“I kept thinking there wasn’t really enough material,” said Lear, who had mulled over creating a tour of powerful women at the Met for some time. “Then, obviously, I got a little annoyed by political events these days, so I thought ‘I’m going to look again.’ And, in fact, I don’t know what was stopping me before. There’s tons.”
On Saturday, roughly 10 attendees trailed Lear for slightly more than two hours on his second run of the new tour. It started in the Egyptian wing of the Met, where a whole room is dedicated to statues of Hetshepsut, the first female pharaoh. She reigned for 20 years in the mid-1400s B.C., according to Lear, and was the first pharaoh to build a temple in the Valley of Kings.
Back across the lobby of the museum, Lear discussed the Greeks’ more problematic representations of women. “You have to wonder if they noticed how much they were restricting women while worshipping female goddesses,” he said. Some Greek women had important roles as priestesses, but many are shown on vases performing household tasks like weaving wool. Roman women, however, had considerably more power. Julia Mamaea, for example, served as regent for her son Alexander Severus in the third century, and then continued to go on military campaigns with him when he became emperor.
As the tour progressed, some more recognizable names appeared. Lear stopped in front of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of a cow skull, Leonora Carrington’s “Self Portrait” and Alice Neel’s “Portrait of Dick Bagley.” He also told the story of how Gertrude Stein donated the painting Pablo Picasso made of her to the Met in the — successful — hope of achieving immortality. “Gertrude Stein” uses dark colors and simple lines to represent the writer in a brown robe, staring thoughtfully out of the side of the frame.
Kayla Gomez, 27, and her roommate thought now was the perfect time to be celebrating powerful women in art. “It’s something you don’t really learn about, especially in school,” Gomez said. “I went to art school and a lot of it’s focused on male artists.” She said it was “exciting” to see women recognized both for and in art.
A lot of the women featured on the tour, Lear said in a separate interview, were early feminists, but he didn’t limit himself to artists and subjects. Louisine Havemeyer, whose husband was an industrialist in the late 1800s, became very involved in the suffragist movement after his death and donated a large part of the couple’s art collection to the Met. Louisine was one of the first to notice painter Mary Cassatt, and helped found the National Women’s Party in 1916.
“I always think we spent too much time complaining and not enough time celebrating,” Lear said, calling the modern perspective on the past “flattened.” “We tend to think all cultures in the past are bad because they didn’t have our standards, and women were completely powerless. So I think that we miss, when looking at the past, all the ways in which women exercised power.”
The tour ended in front of a painting by John Singer Sargent of Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes, which was originally supposed to depict Edith Minturn Stokes and her dog. The Great Dane, Lear said, was sick that day, so Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes asked if he could be in the painting instead. Edith, posing jauntily in the middle of the frame with a hat propped against her hip, looks happy and carefree. Isaac, with half his face covered in shadow, nearly blends into the background in his beige suit.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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