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Be A Lady, They Said: the Poem in Paintings

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude, 1917, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY, US.

Bodies And Erotic Art

Be A Lady, They Said: the Poem in Paintings

Possibly the most viral video of the week is the poem by Camille Rainville Be a Lady, They Said recited brilliantly by Cinthia Nixon (Sex and the City star and activist) and produced for Girls Girls Girls Magazine. I thought I would give the poem a yet different interpretation and substitute the contemporary pop culture images with paintings. As you will see, not much has changed since the beginning of our times.

Paolo Uccello, A Young Lady of Fashion, 1464, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Fenway Court), Boston, MA, US.

“Be a lady they said.”

Anthony van Dyck, Lady Borlase, 1638, Kingston Lacy, Wimborne Minster, UK.

Your skirt is too short. Your shirt is too low. Your pants are too tight. Don’t show so much skin. Don’t show your thighs. Don’t show your breasts. Don’t show your midriff. Don’t show your cleavage. Don’t show your underwear.

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Don’t show your shoulders. Cover up. Leave something to the imagination.

Raphael, Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn, c.1505 – 1506, Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy.

Dress modestly. Don’t be a temptress.

Delacroix at the Metropolitan
Eugène Delacroix , The Death of Sardanapalus, 1827, The Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

Men can’t control themselves. Men have needs.

Edouard Manet, The Lady with Fans, Portrait of Nina de Callias, 1874, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

You look frumpy. Loosen up. Show some skin. Look sexy. Look hot. Don’t be so provocative. You’re asking for it. Wear black. Wear heels. You’re too dressed up. You’re too dressed down. Don’t wear those sweatpants; you look like you’ve let yourself go.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Switcher, 2013, Jack Shainman Gallery, NY, US.

Be a lady they said. Don’t be too fat. Don’t be too thin. Don’t be too large. Don’t be too small.

Fernando Botero, Colombian Eating a Banana, 1982, Private Collection.

Eat up. Slim down. Stop eating so much. Don’t eat too fast. Order a salad. Don’t eat carbs. Skip dessert. You need to lose weight. Fit into that dress. Go on a diet.

Anita Malfatti, Tropical, 1917, Pinacoteca de São Paulo, Brazil.

Watch what you eat. Eat celery. Chew gum. Drink lots of water. You have to fit into those jeans.

Egon Schiele, Reclining Semi Nude with Red Hat, 1910, private Collection.

God, you look like a skeleton. Why don’t you just eat? You look emaciated. You look sick. Eat a burger. Men like women with some meat on their bones.

James Tissot, Young Lady In A Boat, 1870, Private collection.

Be small. Be light. Be little. Be petite. Be feminine. Be a size zero. Be a double zero. Be nothing. Be less than nothing.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1525, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Be a lady they said. Remove your body hair. Shave your legs. Shave your armpits. Shave your bikini line. Wax your face. Wax your arms. Wax your eyebrows. Get rid of your mustache. Bleach this. Bleach that. Lighten your skin.

Diego Rivera, The hammock, 1956, Dolores Olmedo Museum, Mexico, Mexico.

Tan your skin. Eradicate your scars. Cover your stretch marks. Tighten your abs. Plump your lips. Botox your wrinkles. Lift your face. Tuck your tummy. Thin your thighs. Tone your calves. Perk up your boobs.

James Tissot, Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869, Private Collection.

Look natural. Be yourself. Be genuine. Be confident. You’re trying too hard. You look overdone. Men don’t like girls who try too hard.

Frantisek Kupka, Lipstick, 1908, Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, France.

Be a lady they said. Wear makeup. Prime your face. Conceal your blemishes. Contour your nose. Highlight your cheekbones. Line your lids. Fill in your brows. Lengthen your lashes. Colour your lips. Powder, blush, bronze, highlight.

Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair, 1896-1900, National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.

Your hair is too short. Your hair is too long. Your ends are split. Highlight your hair. Your roots are showing. Dye your hair. Not blue, that looks unnatural.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady, 1894, Vienna Museum, Vienna, Austria.

You’re going grey. You look so old. Look young. Look youthful. Look ageless. Don’t get old. Women don’t get old. Old is ugly. Men don’t like ugly.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Young Shepherdess, 1885, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, US.

Be a lady they said. Save yourself. Be pure. Be virginal.

Gustave Courbet, Portrait of a Spanish Lady, 1855, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, US.

Don’t talk about sex. Don’t flirt. Don’t be a skank. Don’t be a whore. Don’t sleep around. Don’t lose your dignity. Don’t have sex with too many men. Don’t give yourself away. Men don’t like sluts.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1868, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE, US.

Don’t be a prude. Don’t be so uptight. Have a little fun. Smile more. Pleasure men. Be experienced. Be sexual. Be innocent. Be dirty. Be virginal. Be sexy. Be the cool girl. Don’t be like the other girls.

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, c.1892 – c.1893, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, UK.

Be a lady they said. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t talk too much. Don’t take up space. Don’t sit like that.

Lady Ligonier by Thomas Gainsborough, 1771, Tate Britain, London, UK.

Don’t stand like that. Don’t be intimidating.

Pablo Picasso, Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Pablo Picasso, Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Why are you so miserable?

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Mary Wotton, Lady Guildenford, 1527, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland.

Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be so bossy. Don’t be assertive. Don’t overact.

Hiroshige, Moonlight View of Tsukuda with Lady on a Balcony, 1856, Brooklyn Museum of Art, US.

Don’t be so emotional. Don’t cry. Don’t yell. Don’t swear. Be passive. Be obedient. Endure the pain. Be pleasing. Don’t complain.

Konstantin Somov, A Youth on His Knees in Front of a Lady, 1916, Private collection.

Let him down easy. Boost his ego. Make him fall for you. Men want what they can’t have. Don’t give yourself away. Make him work for it. Men love the chase.

Amedeo Modigliani, The Pretty Housewife, 1915, Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA, US.

Fold his clothes. Cook his dinner. Keep him happy. That’s a woman’s job. You’ll make a good wife someday.

Dana Schutz, How We Would Give Birth, 2007, Musée d‘art contemporain de Montréal, Canada.

Take his last name. You hyphenated your name? Crazy feminist. Give him children. You don’t want children? You will someday. You’ll change your mind.

Vittore Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies, c.1490, Museo Correr, Venice, Italy.

Be a lady they said. Don’t get raped. Protect yourself. Don’t drink too much. Don’t walk alone. Don’t go out too late. Don’t dress like that. Don’t show too much.

Gerard Terborch, Woman Drinking Wine, c.1657, Städel, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Don’t get drunk. Don’t leave your drink.

Arrangement in Black The Lady in the Yellow Buskin, 1883, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, US.

Have a buddy. Walk where it is well lit. Stay in the safe neighborhoods. Tell someone where you’re going. Bring pepper spray. Buy a rape whistle. Hold your keys like a weapon. Take a self-defense course. Check your trunk. Lock your doors. Don’t go out alone.

Giovanni Boldini, Lady Colin Campbell, 1897, National Portrait Gallery, London, UK.

Don’t make eye contact. Don’t bat your eyelashes. Don’t look easy. Don’t attract attention. Don’t work late.

Pieter de Hooch, Woman drinking with soldiers, 1658, Louvre, Paris, France.

Don’t crack dirty jokes. Don’t smile at strangers. Don’t go out at night. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t say yes. Don’t say no.

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady with a Puppy, c.1534, National Gallery of Ancient Art (GNAA), Rome, Italy.

Just “be a lady” they said.

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.


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