To most people it’s just a bust of a Roman boy. But to us it’s a portrait of Antinous—the beautiful youth who became the Emperor Hadrian’s obsession, committed suicide—or drowned in any case—in the River Nile, and was deified by the Emperor.
Those silk wall hangings? They actually portray a king’s mistress—one who was accused of holding black masses to distill aphrodisiacs, with dead babies cut open over her naked body. And that Renaissance patron, piously worshipping the Virgin Mary? In reality he was at the center of a giant pay-to-play scandal, losing huge sums of Medici money to get himself onto the King’s council. On a typical museum audioguide, you’ll never hear these stories. That’s because art tours focus on the art as art—not the context that created it. But with our Hidden Secrets of the Met, you’ll hear it all: the messy, intriguing, fun side of history that makes art come alive.
Marble Portrait Head of Antinous, 130s AD
Diagonally across from the bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (as in "Hadrian's wall") the Met has placed a bust of this handsome lad, but they don't tell you much about him. A Greek boy 35 years younger than the Emperor, Antinous was the Emperor's one and only great love. We don't know much about his life, though. The famous thing about him is his death: Antinous drowned in the Nile at 19—and the grieving Emperor declared him a god. He was worshipped throughout the Empire for 300 years, which is why there are over 100 statues and busts of him in the world's museums.
Jan Steen, Merry Company on a Terrace, 1670s
This is one of the many 17 th century Dutch scenes on a moralizing theme. But as is often the case with Steen, he doesn’t make it look so bad. In any case, the sexiest part is right in the foreground: the mistress of the tavern sits looking at the viewer invitingly, with one breast rising out of her bodice where two pink roses are loosely pinned, lifting her apron off her lap and holding an overturned wineglass in her right hand. Her left elbow leans on the thigh of a young musician who holds an extremely phallic lute in a very suggestive position….
Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1855
This vast canvas of a horse fair won the gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1855. It is the masterpiece of Rosa Bonheur, the great animal specialist of the 19th century European art world, and it was purchased for $80,000 by Cornelius Vanderbilt—1/3 the cost of building the original Met. But if we told you that Bonheur was a cross-dressing lesbian and put herself in this painting dressed as a man, could you spot her? Hint: she doesn't have something that everyone else in the painting has on their faces....