Degas, Whistler, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Yves Klein. These are all big names of modernism, all artists whose devotion to recording the human image was pretty unswerving. They are celebrated in museums and art history textbooks; their work is iconic and has taken its place in the canon as testament to western visual genius. Any first year student would be able to rattle off the names of these artists, if examples of their work were to be flashed up on screen, in a slide test. Indeed, I have tried this myself, when teaching, and pretty much consistently get a 100% success rate.
But then comes the twist. We can look back through those slides and come up with an alternate history. Marie van Goethem, Joanna Heffernan, Victorine Meurent, Lise Trehot, Suzanne Valadon, Elena Palumbo-Mosca – a list of names that will be baffling to most people. For these are the women who are classified as ‘models’, the women whose contribution to the history of art is immeasurable and yet is ignored.
Let us start with Marie van Goethem, known to history as ‘The Little Ballet Dancer aged 14’.
I have no issue with recognizing this sculpture as a remarkable and great work of art. The traditional title however, belittles it. It smacks of the cutesy, the sweet, the pretty, the charming. Its story though, is far different. Today it is unacceptable for a middle aged male artist to work with a nude 14-year-old girl. But things were different then. Marie was from a poor and hardworking Belgian family that moved to Paris to better themselves. Her widowed mother was a laundress, trying to bring up three daughters, on a meagre wage and living in one of the poorest areas of Paris. Marie and one of her sisters successfully auditioned for places in the corps de ballet which, by today’s standards, would seem to be a move up the social scale but then, the dancers were drawn from the lower classes and seen as rife for sexual exploitation by the affluent classes of Paris. To supplement the family’s income, Marie started modelling for Degas. Becoming an artist’s model was then seen as hardly more than one step up from prostitution, a measure of the lowly status of the young women of the corps de ballet. What finally became of Marie, we do not know. She started missing classes and was dismissed. We know her sister was arrested for stealing a large sum of money from a patron at a down-market tavern. Maybe for Marie, visiting these places with her sister, full of elegant gentlemen in search of cheap sex who were ripe for fleecing, was easier money than the gruelling life at the ballet.
We might never know the truth. Whatever, Marie’s own creativity enabled Degas to produce one of his most influential works. Without her, it could never have happened. If this idea was put to Degas, however, one can imagine him spluttering with incomprehension. ‘I have perhaps too often considered woman, as an animal’ he said, later in his life, a hint that he viewed young Marie, with her sinewy limbs and bony hips, in the same way, that he looked at those thoroughbred racehorses, that were another of his passions.
Jo Heffernan was Whistler’s lover. She modelled for some of his most sumptuous and ravishing pictures, including the celebrated The White Girl. They lived together in Chelsea until Whistler received notice that his mother was coming from the United States to visit her son. This was bad news for Jo. Obviously terrified that his mom would discover that he was living with a woman, Whistler had to move Jo out of their home and find alternative accommodation for her. Although we can’t ever know, it is not likely that she was very happy about this and we next find her in Paris, modelling for Courbet, most spectacularly in the controversial, The Sleepers, a full-on reverie of lesbian love. It is reported that Whistler was likewise not very happy about ‘his’ Jo taking up like this, with a rival painter. Whatever, Jo Heffernan’s role in major works of both Whistler and Courbet places her at the very centre of 19th century avant-garde painting.
Similarly with Victorine Meurent, who can be seen in several of Manet’s most significant paintings, not least Olympia and the Dejeuner sur l’herbe, two pictures that are largely credited as being the beginnings of modernism. Recent research has revealed that Victorine was a painter herself, and successfully submitted work, to the Paris Salon. Indeed, she had work accepted there in 1876, the same year that Manet found himself rejected, although tantalisingly only one work can be attributed to her with any certainty. Now there is at last some scholarly interest in her, perhaps more will be identified. There is no hint at any romantic or sexual relationship between her and Manet. This does not mean however, that we should just see her as a detached professional, simply taking the money for her time spent posing because the two obviously did have some sort of creative, and indeed enjoyable connection to one another, that was obviously of crucial importance in the creation of the paintings.
In 1881 a young Montmartre acrobat called Marie-Clementine Valadon had a bad fall from a trapeze when she was just 16. She was badly injured. No longer able to work as an acrobat she began to frequent the artists’ studios and started to work as a model. Aged 17 she became the mistress of Puvis de Chavannes, an artist who was over 40 years older than her. Aged 18 she had a child, Maurice, the paternity of whom has never been conclusively proven. One of the candidates, Toulouse-Lautrec, gave Marie-Clementine the nickname of Suzanne, after the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders, in which the Jewish heroine Susannah, is illicitly spied upon whilst naked, and the name stuck. Renoir was another paternity suspect and although the child took the name of Utrillo, from the Spanish painter Miguel Utrillo, there is no evidence that Miguel was indeed the father.
Suzanne appears in many works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and others, both nude and clothed. One thing for sure about her is that she led her own life and would not even consider accepting moral judgment from anyone. She became a successful painter and was befriended and encouraged by Degas, who arranged for the dealer Ambrose Vollard to organise her first exhibition.
She never modelled for Degas because their relationship was one of equals, not one of employee and servant, as it was with Degas and Marie van Goethem. Despite Degas’s less than favourable view of women he is reported to have said to her ‘indeed, you are one of us!’ and her career as an artist lasted throughout her whole life.
Another important player in the Renoir circle was Lise Trehot, a dressmaker who began modelling for Renoir, then in his mid-20s when she was 18. She features in many of his early works including the National Gallery’s Nymph by a Stream, where she playfully looks back out of the picture with an expression that betrays the intimacy of their relationship. Degas’s models never look back at the artist. Here however, in this work by Renoir, Lise most certainly does. After working with Renoir for about six years she suddenly stopped. We do not know why. Eleven years later she married and had a family. However, we also know that during her years of modelling she had a child, Jeanne, who was given away to a wet-nurse. Intriguingly, Renoir secretly supported the child and after his death, these secret payments continued from out of his estate, through the agency of Ambrose Vollard. And when Lise herself died in 1922, she bequeathed two small paintings by Renoir, to her children that are now both in the Dallas Museum of Art.
Moving nearer to our own time, Yves Klein’s wonderful Anthropometries, made by coating naked women with blue paint and then rolling or pressing them against canvases, and getting them to drag each other about on the canvases, are a kind of culmination of the male artist/female model idea that we can trace from Zeuxis in ancient Greece, through Titian and Velazquez, to Renoir, Cézanne and Picasso. What creative contribution did these paint-smeared women make to the works or are they solely the result of Klein’s creativity? Until recently, nobody even thought seriously about them, as if they didn’t even have names and were just obeying the instructions of the male genius. But at the recent show at Tate Modern, ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance’, in 2013, a filmed interview with Elena Palumbo-Mosca, one of the women who worked with Klein, was shown. At last, visitors were able to recognize and think about the creative contribution of the women who worked with the artist. http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-yves-klein-anthropometries
Finally, there is the case of Lucian Freud whose, Girl in Bed is fairly typical, in that the title seems to be deliberately stripping the subject of her identity. She is in fact Lady Caroline Blackwood, the artist’s first wife who remains anonymous in all of Freud’s representations of her. This is true also of Kitty Epstein, Freud’s second wife who appears in several iconic early works of Freud’s that he simply calls things like, Girl with a Dark Jacket or Girl in a White Dress. In choosing these bland titles, there is the inevitable temptation to see Freud as aggressively disempowering the women he married.
It is also interesting to think about the language we use when discussing artists’ models. Indeed, the very word ‘model’ implies passivity and subservience. The model sits there still, mute and tame, while the genius does his work. Is there an alternative word that we can use, that recognises the contribution of the ‘model’? Even more loaded is the word ‘muse’, which is much overused by journalists. It was particularly applied to the women who worked for artists such as Picasso and Freud. Women as brilliant as Dora Maar or Lee Miller are referred to as just two of the Spanish master’s many ‘muses’. If you google ‘Lucian Freud muse’, the results come pouring in, not from academic publications but from gossip columns, often in so-called quality newspapers. Keen for tittle- tattle, articles overflow with claims that so-and-so had become the artists ‘latest muse,’ an expression packed with titillating implications. Oddly enough though, one of Freud’s most remarkable models, the late Leigh Bowery, never found himself described as such. Baffling.