According to Andrew Lear, it started with Dr. Ruth.
Lear, founder of the Shady Ladies Tours, remembers leading media personality and sex therapist Ruth Westheimer on a private tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when it struck him.
“As I was showing her around the museum I said, ‘I keep showing you all these courtesans. Do you think I could give a tour called The Shady Ladies of the Metropolitan about courtesans and all these mistresses?’ And [Westheimer] said, ‘That would be popular,’” Lear remembered. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God. I have an idea that Ruth Westheimer thinks would be popular.’”
Lear, who had started his gay history tour company Oscar Wilde Tours two years prior, intended for the Shady Ladies Tour to be a one-time experiment. He created a listing on Eventbrite, promoted the event on Facebook, and then watched it sell out.
“I thought, ‘Hm. That’s kind of intriguing. Let’s try it again.’ And it sold out again,” Lear said. “And I can tell you, it was still sold out this Sunday, three years later.”
From that one-off event in 2016, a collection of tours and events having to do with women’s history through art has blossomed. Shady Ladies Tours now has multiple tours in New York, as well as offerings in Paris, Philadelphia, and Boston.
The Boston tour takes place at the Museum of Fine Arts, which Lear said is home to “a very rich collection about women. He described the Boston Shady Ladies tour as being full of “scandalous women or sexy sides of art that people don’t notice,” women artists, powerful women in art, and a little bit of fashion.
The two-hour jaunt takes participants through the museum’s collection of Ancient Greek, Renaissance, Egyptian, 18th-century, and American art. The company employs four guides, but Lear, a Harvard graduate who splits his time between New York City and Boston, always leads the MFA tour. He hosts them once a month on Wednesday evenings, when free museum admission allows for a better tour ticket price, and lesser crowds allow for larger groups and quieter halls.
In the spirit of boundary-pushing women, Lear has selected four MFA artworks to visit on International Women’s Day, which falls on Friday, March 8 this year. While a more modern institution may seem like the better destination to find examples of women pushing the envelope, Lear said “that’s not true at all.”
“The MFA is exactly where you would go look for it,” he said.
“Bust of Cleopatra,” Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi
This work is not prominent for who shaped it, but for its likely owner. Lear said this Renaissance-era bronze bust of the late Egyptian ruler is significant because he and the MFA believe it was owned by Isabella d’Este, a “powerhouse woman” of the Renaissance.
“The cool thing is it’s very unusual in history that you get a powerful woman using a powerful woman from the past as a kind of coaching figure,” Lear explained. “For some reason, that’s just not a trope. But this is an example. It’s pretty clear that she was ruling Mantua in a world in which women did not rule anything, and she had this bust of Cleopatra in her study.”
“In the Loge,” Mary Stevenson Cassatt
Like many painters of the 19th century, Cassatt received formal training in Europe. However, she was one of three women, and the only American, to join the band of French Impressionists, according to the MFA. “In the Loge” was Cassatt’s first Impressionist painting to be put on view in the United States.
“It’s what I think is part of a series of Cassatt’s paintings where women behave in a surprisingly and forcefully purposeful way, reversing traditional behavior,” Lear observed. “Your traditional view of 19th-century opera is of women looking to other women or flirting. Instead, there’s a man looking at her, but she’s ignoring him. She’s watching the performance.”
“Sleeping Faun,” Harriet Goodhue Hosmer
Hosmer, one of the earliest professional female sculptors, hailed from Watertown.
“She’s an interesting member of a kind of glitterati world of the 19th century and she was just considered very scandalous because she insisted on sculpting from the nude, which was just considered unfeminine,” Lear said. “And the MFA does have one of her nudes.”
“Sleeping Faun” shows a languid figure draped over a tree stump. Grapes and a panpipe lay at his feet.
“It is not nude in the sense that it’s genitalia, but it’s sort of nude,” Lear said. “Nude enough to be scandalous for the 19th century.”
“Self Portrait,” Ellen Day Hale
“She really seems to be looking at you, looking right at you and saying, ‘Yeah, what do you want to make of it?’” Lear said of this work. “It’s a woman demanding the room to define herself.”
Hale was the daughter of abolitionist and writer Edward Everett Hale, but also came from a line of prominent women. Her great aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe authored “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and her first cousin Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
She lived in an entirely female household that was not financially supported by men, a situation that has been dubbed a Boston Marriage.
“To us, it’s obscure whether this means a lesbian couple or not,” Lear said. “We just don’t know with these women-women households of the 19th century.”