The late actress Beatrice Arthur had a devoted fan base. Just how devoted has been revealed by the United Kingdom news site The Daily Mail who reports that Beatrice’s “sexist” nude painting that had been painted in the 1990’s has gone for almost $2 million.
The painting, which was indeed considered “sexist and misogynistic” all those years ago, is now referred to as “feminist and empowering. Controversial artist John Currin painted ‘Bea Arthur Naked’ in 1991, and the painting features the “older” star wearing a blank expression and sagging breasts.
Beatrice Arthur enjoyed a full career that was catapulted to new heights when she starred in the television sitcom Maude in 1972. The show ran for six seasons and her popularity as the sarcastic and acrid, bigger than life character cemented her a place in the hearts of viewers.
But it was as Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak in the 1985 sitcom The Golden Girls which ran for seven seasons that “Bea” Arthur really became a household name. With costars Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty (who played Dorothy’s mother) these women were a vital part of comedy on television.
Though it was certainly controversial when it was unveiled in the 1990’s, Currin’s work is now widely acclaimed and hangs in many museums such as the Whitney. He once said he considered Arthur ‘more of a maternal figure than a feminist icon. I watched “Maude” all the time when I was a kid. She’s a genius. She’s funny because she’s so much smarter than everyone around her,’ he added.
Born Beatrice Frankel in New York on May 13, 1922, Arthur began performing in college and appeared in Broadway and off-Broadway roles, winning a Tony Award opposite Angela Lansbury in Mame.
In the early 1970s, she appeared on the groundbreaking television comedy ‘All in the Family’ as Edith Bunker’s fiercely liberal cousin Maude. Producers who saw gold in her comic timing and deadpan delivery quickly devised a spinoff for the character.
It was as Maude that Beatrice Arthur became embroiled in controversy and the network received letters of protest. In November of 1972, the first of a two part episode aired that had Bea Arthur’s character deciding to have an abortion because of her age. The procedure was legal in New York state, where the show was set, but not nationwide.
Two months after the two part episode had aired the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Beatrice Arthur was just like her larger than life characters that she portrayed on the screen. She was active in the campaign against cruelty to animals and she wrote letters, made personal appearances and placed ads against the use of furs, foie gras, and farm animal cruelty by KFC suppliers.
She was a longtime champion of civil rights for women, the elderly, and the Jewish and LGBT communities—in her two television roles and through her charity work and personal outspokenness—has led her to be cited as an LGBT icon.
Regarding politics, Arthur herself was a liberal Democrat who confirmed her views by saying, “I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. That’s what makes Maude and Dorothy so believable, we have the same viewpoints on how our country should be handled.”
The Emmy winning actress died in 2009 of cancer. But her legacy lives on in the countless repeats and DVD collections of Maude and The Golden Girls.
With a presale estimate of $2.5 million in the post war and contemporary art sale at Christie’s, the painting did almost as well as expected, being purchased by an anonymous phone bidder for $1.9 million.
By Michael Smith