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    Saturday, March 12, 2005

    Medpundit Art History Lesson: Every age has its Paris Hiltons and Pamela Andersons, women who parlay their sexuality into a life of celebrity and fortune. These days, we hardly notice them. They're just another arm of the entertainement industry, their sex for sale to all of us. But in the days of Kitty Fisher, women with such talents had to peddle their wares to a much more limited - and privileged - clientele. And yet, they were no less famous or deprived of fortune than their modern counterparts. At least not Kitty Fisher.

    Catherine Maria ('Kitty') Fisher, 1765
    by Nathaniel Hone.
    Posted with permission from the National Portrait Gallery

    Born in London to an emigre German cabinetmaker, Catherine Maria Fischer , or Kitty, began her professional life as an actress on the 18th century English stage and a favored model of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. But it was as a courtesan that she reached her highest, and most profitable, popularity. Cassanova claimed to have passed on her favors because her inability to speak French would make their intercourse less than pleasurable. He was a man, he said, who like to "have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified." ( One suspects, however, that it was more likely he balked at her 100 pound fee, for which she was a stickler. She is said to have eaten a 50 pound note with bread and butter when given to her by the Duke of York, just to make a point. )

    When the Irish portraitist, Nathaniel Hone painted her in 1765, she was at the height of her popularity. So much so that the she remained unnamed in the portrait's Society of Artists showing. Instead the catalog described her as a "lady whose charms are well known to the town." Lest there be any doubt of her identity, she sits coyly next to a kitty fishing in a goldfish bowl, itself a statement on the nature of her celebrity. Although difficult to see in this image, there's an ogling public reflected on its surface.

    A few years earlier, and an ocean a way, a surgeon in the British Army sat in an encampment along the Hudson River, humming a popular ditty about Kitty Fisher to himself as he watched the colonial recruits who had joined the regular British Army to help fight the French and Indians:
    Lucy Locket lost her pocket
    Kitty Fisher found it
    Not a bit of money in it,
    Only binding round it.

    The surgeon, Richard Shuckburgh, was a man known on the New York frontier for his wit. As he sat watching the local yokels, the Kitty Fisher tune became:
    Yankee Doodle came to town
    Upon a little pony
    He stuck a feather in his hat
    And called it Macaroni
    The rest rest is history. And all thanks to Kitty Fisher. Beat that Paris Hilton.

    Alas, poor Kitty. She died two years after the portrait by Hone. Poisoned by the lead in her make-up.

    posted by Sydney on 3/12/2005 04:38:00 PM 0 comments


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