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Shady Ladies Tours | New York

Shady Ladies Tour of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The great courtesans of history were famous not only for sex-appeal but also for their talents—and for a spirit which today we would call ‘entrepreneurial.’ They fascinated both their wealthy patrons and the artists who created the world’s great masterpieces.

Come discover the racy and intriguing backstories behind the Metropolitan Museum's collections. The Shady Ladies tour will change the way you see the museum - and are itself - forever.

Take 10% OFF Each Ticket @ Checkout! Use The Code: SHADYDEAL
** Ticket price includes museum admission. Advanced purchase necessary.
Discounts available for seniors, students, and Met members. **

Shady Ladies Tour

Courtesans, royal mistresses, scandalous women of every sort—the walls of the Metropolitan Museum are lined with them, from ancient Greek hetaerae to Sargent’s Madame X.

Corey SLT

To find out, join us as we explore the lives and loves that lie behind the paintings. On this fun and informative two-hour tour, we will learn about:

  • the first nude female statue in ancient Greece and the hetaera who modeled for it
  • the oiran of the pleasure quarter of 18th century Tokyo
  • a Venetian courtesan who published books of poetry
  • the official royal mistresses of the French kings
  • the official royal mistresses of the French kings
  • a royal bastard who is the ancestor of many English aristocrats
  • the grandes horizontales of Belle Epoque Paris
  • And so much more…

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Isoda Koryusai, Courtesan and Two Attendants on New Year’s Day, 1780s

This oiran (courtesan) is taking her afternoon promenade down the main street of the Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo, today’s Tokyo. Like most oiran, she is vastly overdressed—wearing two kimonos, a pink robe, and several robes beneath it—and sports a complex, non-symetrical hairdo, and her clogs are so high that she must be tottering. The sash (obi) that ties her kimono is not tied behind her in the normal style, but in front—a sure sign of the oiran. Also, she offers a tantalizing glimpse of exposed neck, the body part treated as sexy in traditional Japanese erotica.


Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, 1778

Unlike many courtesans, Grace Dalrymple did not start life as a common prostitute. Instead, she was a bourgeois married lady whose husband divorced her when he found out about her affair with the Marquess of Cholmondeley. Cholmondeley was her principal patron and among other things commissioned this glorious portrait by Gainsborough, in which she seems to be an aristocratic lady, demurely holding the train of her splendid gold dress. Among her other patrons she counted the Prince of Wales (the future George IV)—possibly the father of her daughter—and the Duc d’Orléans, Louis XVI’s famous revolutionary cousin.


Edgar Degas, Dancers, Pink and Green, ca. 1890

Like most working women in 19th-century Paris, ballerinas did not earn enough to live on, and like many, they typically rounded out their income by prostitution. Ballerinas were famously beautiful, however, so this was high-class prostitution: rather than being paid for sex, ballerinas would receive gifts from a patron. Ballerinas were among Degas’ favorite topics, and he sometimes includes the patron in his paintings of them, as he does in this particularly beautiful painting, where the patron is included in silhouette, as if he were casting a shadow on the lives of these bright young girls.

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