Boasting a collection of more than two million items, it can be difficult to know exactly where to begin during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Spending an afternoon meandering from gallery to gallery, staring at paintings and pretending you know what you’re looking at is a great way to wind up with a case of museum fatigue (which is actually a real thing).
That’s where Museum Hack comes in.
Our public tours of the Met are a rollicking two-hour romp through the museum with our Renegade Tour Guides, who will take you on a journey through the Met’s galleries, stopping to focus on some of their favorite “un-highlights”.
This isn’t about brushstrokes and composition. The facts and anecdotes Museum Hack tour guides share about these oft-overlooked pieces in the museum’s collection range from scintillating to salacious and present all the wild and weird things you wouldn’t know just by looking at a painting and its nameplate.
We asked renegadetour guide, Evan Goodman, to share a few mini “hacks” and we’ve rounded up our favorites below. Read on to discover some of the wildest stories the Met has to offer!
“Charity” by Guido Reni
I love oil paintings of cute Italian girls, and the reigning champion in this department is my man Guido Reni. This image is an allegory for charity. Guido Reni, despite his typical subject matter, occasionally got himself into trouble with his art. Once, he was painting an image for a chapel, and the person commissioning it said, “Hey man, since we both hate that one cardinal, why don’t you paint him into this image as Satan?” which he did. The only problem was that it was super obvious, everyone could tell it was him, and eventually that cardinal became the pope. Whoops. Guido Reni had to leave Rome. When he moved to another city, the local artists there threatened to poison him because he was taking all the commissions (classic haters) – the life of an artist.
“Nijinksy” by Auguste Rodin
This is a plaster model for an image of the famous dancer and choreographer Nijinsky. I love this sculpture because it’s such a weird shape and form for a human body – and Nijinsky was a grade A weird dude. He’s most famous for choreographing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a ballet with very out there music about a pagan ritual wherein a virgin girl is sacrificed (seriously – that’s basically all that happens). At the opening performance in Paris in 1913, the dancing was so strange that people in the audience started yelling at the performers, a fight broke out, and this fight turned into a full scale riot – very impressive.
“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques Louis David
Jacques Louis David is easily one of the best painters ever, and when he made this painting, people were really into it. Maybe that’s because of his awesome subject matter: Socrates totally killing himself. Long story short, Socrates went to the oracle who can ask the gods questions and tell people stuff. Socrates thinks, “okay cool, I’ll ask the oracle who the smartest man alive is, and then I’ll go ask him stuff”. So he does this, but in a shocking twist she says, “you are, Socrates. You are the smartest man”. He doesn’t believe her, and this tale culminates in him deciding that maybe he’s the smartest man because he actually knows how not smart he is – woah, d e e p.
Anyway, he gets to questioning things a little bit too much, and he’s sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth”. The most important thing for you to notice is how RIPPED Socrates is. I mean seriously, he’s like 70 in this pic, and he is pretty jacked. He actually wrote about the philosophical benefits of having huge muscles and stuff – true story.
“No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow)” by Mark Rothko
Rothko paintings are pretty weird. Rothko is pretty much the only abstract expressionist painter I can pretend to stand: he was really into the emotional impact of the colors, and what color had to say about our spiritual and inner life. The best part is that he really hated the art world, he actually put his most monumental work in Texas, allegedly so it would be as far away from NY and LA as possible.
He also got a commission once to paint some murals for The Four Seasons, an extremely fancy restaurant in NYC. While traveling, he privately told someone that his goal was to paint “something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room….” and that he wanted to use his paintings to make people “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall.”
“Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints” by Raphael
Renaissance crash course: Da Vinci, then Michelangelo, then Raphael. That’s it.
Renaissance hot take: Raphael was the best of the three. I SAID IT.
Raphael is easily one of the best painters ever. The funny thing about this image is that we know it was made for a bunch of nuns because there are no naked people, and even baby Jesus has this cute American Eagle sweater on to hide his presumably scandalous baby fat.
Raphael was apparently pretty hot and the girls were really into it. There’s this guy named Vasari, he kind of invented art history by writing about the artists in Italy at the time, and he said Raphael died from having too much sex. True story!
Marble statue of Aphrodite
Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, made when one god cut off another god’s penis and threw it into the ocean. CLASSIC.
This sculpture is probably referencing one of the most famous sculptures ever, called Aphrodite of Knidos. This was an image of Aphrodite covering herself, as though someone just walked in on her taking a bath. A ton of copies were made of this. Allegedly, this “original” Aphrodite sculpture was so beautiful that some guys got a little out of control. There is a legend from antiquity that a sailor was once so taken by her beauty that he locked himself in the shrine with her overnight, and the stories actually say there were… stains… left on the sculpture. The shrine’s caretaker would also supposedly open the back of the shrine so that you could see her other side… for a fee, of course.
Amulet in the Form of a Lion-Headed Goddess
If you see a lion headed goddess from Egypt, it’s probably Sekhmet. She is powerful female strength deity, almost like a war goddess. In her temples they would keep actual lions. People were so into her that we find a ton of these sculptures, sometimes hundreds in a single temple.
She is the daughter of Ra, the sun god. Ra once sent her down to Earth to kill a few people to punish them. The problem was, Sekhmet got a little excited about killing, and started killing everyone. To placate her, Ra set down hundreds of glasses of beer stained red with pomegranate juice, told her it was blood, and she drank them and passed out. Egyptians had a special festival to celebrate this event, where they drank beer stained red with pomegranate juice.