“Well-behaved women seldom make history”

Kees van Dongen, The Quai, Venice, ca. 1921. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley. Photo by John R. Glembin ©2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

In the spirit of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote, I would like to introduce you to one of the most notorious women in the Museum – the Marchesa Luisa Casati.  According to her biographers, the Marchesa is the most depicted woman in art history after Madonna, Eve, and Helen of Troy.  It doesn’t hurt to mention that she commissioned as many artists as she could for a huge gallery of her own portraits in her lavish, international party center of a house.

Her trademark flaming red hair and large rings of black eyeliner make her immediately recognizable.  In person, it would not have been unusual to find her parading outfit-less, leading around two pet cheetahs on diamond and ruby leashes. (Remember this tv commercial?)  She wore live snakes as jewelry and commissioned the costume designer of the extremely avant-garde Ballet Russes to create her “every day” attire.

Her life-as-performance-art was an inspiration to many of her contemporaries including the Surrealists (Man Ray) and Futurists (Giacomo Balla).  Clotheshorses/artists of our day – including John Galliano (see the runway show inspired by the Marchesa here), the burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, and the creators of the fashion line Marchesa – have paid her tribute.  Fashion designer Norman Norell revered her as an icon of artistic expression so devotedly that he purchased her portrait by Kees van Dongen and designed a fashion line inspired by it.  Check out this photo of Norell with our portrait in the September 26, 1960 Life Magazine.

Mrs. Bradley bought the Marchesa’s portrait from Mr. Norell’s estate, and it became her favorite painting.  Now, thanks to Mrs. Bradley’s gift to the Milwaukee Art Museum, it’s one of my favorites too.

Come up and see her sometime.  She loves company.  (She holds court in the Bradley Galleries on the Museum’s upper level.)

Janet Gourley is the Assistant for Education and Public Programs at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Her workday is spent facilitating programs, maintaining department attendance statistics, and knowing how to answer any and all questions about the Museum’s educational programs.

About Janet Gourley

Janet is the Education and Public Programs Department Administrator at Milwaukee Art Museum. Her workday is spent facilitating programs, maintaining department attendance statistics, and knowing how to answer any and all questions about MAM's Education and Programs.
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