On the Shady Ladies tour at the preeminent Metropolitan Museum of Art, staid, state portraits become 17th and 18th century versions of "sefies." With Professor Andrew Lear explaining the historical context of the paintings with his humorous approach, it's as if these were the "Twitter feeds" of the era's celebrities and statesmen.
An Ivy Leaguer as both student and staff member, Professor Lear has been leading lectures open to all for the Oscar Wilde and the Shady Ladies tours where the gossip and fun of art history sheds fresh light on the material.
While on Professor Andrew Lear’s “Shady Ladies” tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I went into full millennial mode, posting on Facebook literally (improper usage here) every two seconds because of the hilarity with which the formidable academic delivered his apex cocktail-party conversation knowledge on art history and the human condition. My favorite post was on Pompeo Battoni's Diana Stealing Cupid's Bow where Professor Lear off-handedly reminded the diverse two-dozen-member tour group of how to maximize the appearance of one’s breasts---whether for high art of the 18th century or a JCPenney intimate apparel sale---by raising your arms above your head. Stuffier, more characteristically staid tour groups flanking us in the European paintings wing stared longingly as our guide had us in stitches in front of some of the Met’s most revered paintings.
Entertaining and enthralling, Professor Lear has made academic accessibility the cornerstone of his teaching style by simply allowing art (all the way back to the classics, his specialty) to speak truthfully---whether that language be sex, intrigue, politics, cattiness. A former professor at Pomona and a handful of ivy leagues, Lear’s controversial dismissal from the former was met with waves of ardent student protests in person and in print (the undergraduate newspaper showcased a thinly veiled jab at Lear’s main detractor). Even more effective and engaging than the “dream teachers” of The Dead Poets’ Society and Dangerous Minds, Professor Lear is both cognizant and respectful of the need to connect modern audiences to what can appear to be a culture far removed. “A large part of the popularity of the Oscar Wilde and Shady Ladies tours is how much more contemporary women identify with the courtesans than they do the traditional wives of history. Today’s women have more freedom as intellectual beings, consumers of fashion, and as lovers---that is paradoxically more in line with these ‘kept’ women.”
As the founder of Oscar Wilde tours (Shady Ladies’ parent company), Professor Lear is putting to use his extensive and nuanced knowledge of art and history, forged during his student days at Harvard (BA) and UCLA (PhD). With his celebrated book, Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods, Professor Lear is a foremost expert on the history of same-sex love (and as he shows on the Shady Ladies tour, a connoisseur of all naughty romantic entanglements, opposite-sex as well as same-sex). “As Americans change their public-face views on homosexuality and marriage, it’s important to acknowledge that some of these ‘progressive’ stances are actually harkening back to classical or traditional norms of older societies.”
A travel enthusiast, Professor Lear’s enterprising dream for Shady Ladies Tours is a series of multi-day European tours of museums. This will not be your great-grandmother’s “Daisy Miller grand tour of Europe:” Professor Lear envisions a sweeping series of lectures on the sexy secrets of high-brow collections by pointing(and poking fun) at the not-so-hidden homages to courtesans, on the model of the 8-day gay history tour of London and Paris offered by parent company Oscar Wilde Tours. The sly observation that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York contains a substantial number of portraits of mistresses, courtesans, and other steadily employed ladies of the night was the initial inspiration for Professor Lear’s popular Shady Ladies tour and one he will undoubtedly expand to other bastions of the art world.
When asked if there are any courtesan-level role models today, Professor Lear says that Kim Kardashian regrettably does not come close to Grace Dalrymple Elliott. Instead, he cites Marlene Dietrich as the last of the great Shady Ladies reflecting, “These women were able to blaze a trail at a time when women were barely allowed to hold candles. They resonate with contemporary women because as the world evolves to finally give women the rights and powers they have been entitled to, to lead full lives, these are the few women of the past who were able to command respect, love, and admiration all while being self-aware of their beauty and charms.”