Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s popular quote, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” may not hold true for the somewhat unknown lives of courtesans in art history, which is the topic of an upcoming lecture.
Art history professor Sandra Wetzel will speak on the subject of “Art History’s Bad Girls: Courtesans in the Art of China and Europe” at 6 p.m. May 5 in the community room of the San Luis Obispo Library.
The topic will explore the role of courtesans and their relationship with art specifically during the Ming Dynasty in China, the Renaissance period in Italy and other European cultures.
“A lot of people think courtesans are merely prostitutes,” Wetzel said. “What I think people will be more surprised about is the fact they were more than prostitutes. They were also by definition artists and well-educated women.”
She will discuss many examples both common and uncommon, including Titian’s “Venice of Urbino.”
Wetzel first researched the topic when she started at Cal Poly and was asked by the women’s and gender studies department to do a lecture on women painters in China. While researching she discovered that an unusually large number of Chinese women during the Ming Dynasty were painters as well as courtesans.
The following year she saw the movie “Dangerous Beauty” which told the story of Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco.
“I had never heard of her but she turned out to be a really famous poet; one of the most famous women poets of the Renaissance period and the fact that she was a courtesan also intrigued me,” Wetzel said.
The research and movie made her realize what rich lives they led. She has shared papers at professional conferences before, but has yet to share her thoughts with the general public.
Her aim is to educate attendees about courtesans’ complex lives as painters and poets.
“I would like people to realize just how educated and talented this particular group of women was,” she said. “It’s an example of these hidden groups of women in certain cultures that have both talent and intelligence that we often don’t find out about.”
She also wants to show how the courtesans used their situation to empower and create a higher status for themselves.
The talk is free to the public and is the last of a five-part speaking series and a collaboration between Cal Poly’s women’s and gender studies department and the San Luis Obispo Library.
The series was organized by assistant professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies Rachel Fernflores. Past topics have included talks about abstinence-only sex education, global feminism, feminism, gender and religion and the impact on women’s sports by Title IX.
“Because of all the political changes we have seen over the last year and a half, right now there is more of an openness of talking about what a lot of people would think are controversial issues,” Fernflores said.
Art’s popularity on the Central Coast was one reason Fernflores asked Wetzel to speak. She also said it would be a beneficial combination because sex work is rarely discussed.
The event will consist of an hour presentation followed by a question-and-answer session.
“It’s a fun topic and I think my research certainly uncovered a lot of unexpected things and hopefully the talk will do the same thing for other people,” Wetzel said.