You have to wonder about the fuss being made over Getty Museum's purchase of an 18th-century portrait of a woman nursing her infant. A Hyperallergic magazine headline trumpeted that the painting “broke new ground,” and Getty curator Emily Beeny called it “transformative.”

By way of explanation

Beeny explaining in the museum exhibit literature that the purchase - Adélaïde Labille-Guiard's Portrait of Christine Genevieve Mitoire - “offers insight into social and intellectual changes unfolding at a key moment in European history.” “Unfolding”? Sounds like the painting of nursing mothers materialized in the 18th century.

That can’t be right.

Wrong answer

What of the 12th-century mosaic of a breastfeeding Virgin Mary on the face of the cathedral of Santa Maria in Rome? Surely that’s a part of European history. Wasn’t such an image a commonplace in medieval art?

Talk about “transformative,” what about the often-seen depiction in devotional art of the 11th-century Catholic monk Bernard of Clairvaux drinking milk that the Virgin Mary manually expressed into his mouth?

For shame

So, isn’t all the self-congratulation from the Getty about its purchase just a reflection of latter-day squeamishness when it comes to exposing women’s upper anatomy doing what it’s designed to do? I can’t count the number of times publications I’ve written for that frowned on my using reproductions of paintings showing just breasts, let alone breastfeeding.

You may recall a cringe-worthy Time magazine cover in 2012 that took the image of a nursing mother to extremes by picturing a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son. The woman told Time that doing this in public drove passersby to threaten to call social services, accusing her of child molestation. She argued that the more people see her doing this, the more normal it’ll become in our culture.

Time also quoted the co-founder of Bests For Babies, a group that fostered breastfeeding, saying she hoped the Time cover would make people feel less squeamish about nursing children of any age. But the ado over Getty’s purchase suggests we’re not there yet.

Another theory

Perhaps the public unease at the sight of nursing mothers confuses it with the breast’s role in acts of intimacy.

But I have another theory, at least for the Getty purchase. Maybe the ado has to do with the specific woman pictured. She is not a model, but an actual person. A similar fuss was made over Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass showing a nude woman in a group of clothed men. (Napoleon III called it indecent). Manet had also posed a known individual – the painter Victorine Meurend.

Anyway, Hyperallergic reports that since the first showing of Labille-Guiard’s portrait in 1783, it only been seen in black and white reproductions. Likely, the lack of natural color made it less real and more tolerable to view.

But news of the purchase price is hard to stomach. Getty bought the portrait at a Christie’s auction for $764,000 (reportedly four times the estimated value). Compare that to the recent $20.7 million sale of Lucien Freud’s headshot of fellow painter David Hockey and ask yourself, does this make sense?