1. Woman With a Parrot

Woman With a Parrot. Photo via the Met

We have had whores, courtesans, mistresses, a boy toy, a drag artist, a castrato, a gay Cardinal. Let’s finish with a woman having an orgasm. Courbet was the bad boy of 19th century French art: he scandalized the establishment with everything from his political activities to his depiction of women, which were considered scandalous for their realism. This famous canvas is actually quite air-brushed by Courbet’s standards: we do not see, as so often in his work, cellulite or pubic hair. And the painting was more successful than most of his work: it was accepted by the Salon, and though it was controversial, the Ecole des Beaux Arts tried to buy it for its house collection.

However, if you look carefully, you will see that it is really just as scandalous as his other paintings of women: the flushed color of the subject’s cheeks, her odd smile, her erect nipples — everything points to an orgasmic or at least post-orgasmic state. It is also possible that the parrot she is playing with is a kind of phallic symbol: ‘oiseau’ in French is a word for ‘penis’, just as ‘bird’ (also ‘cock’, ‘pecker’ etc.) is in English. Indeed, this is a very rare painting, one of the only scenes of female sexual excitement you will ever see in a museum! It is almost funny how prominently the Metropolitan displays it — and how few people seem to notice that it’s not just another one of the museum’s many nudes…

Next, check out the Top 10 Secrets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The NYC that Never Was: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Unfinished Areas.