Monday, December 29, 2008

Artists' Models

Today on, there was an interesting article and audio clip by Susan Stamberg about Dina Vierny, an 89-year-old French woman who was a model for the sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and the painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The image here is a photograph of Vierny with Maillol taken shortly before the sculptor's death. Vierny has opened the Musée Maillol in Paris. Her home above the museum is filled with sculptures and drawings that the sculptor did of her. The article and audio clip provide an interesting assessment of a mid-20th-century model and the role she played in the lives of these two important artists.

The study of artists' models is a burgeoning area for the past 15 years or so, in part as an extension of women's studies. The vast majority of work done on models relates to the female model because of her figurative predominance in Western art. The study of models, especially in primi pensieri (literally, "first thoughts," early sketches), often help scholars understand the artist's intent in capturing the model a specific way for a picture or sculpture. The goal, of course, was always to find a beautiful model so as to create a beautiful work of art. One of the great legends of art history is the story of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who sought to create a painting of the most beautiful woman of the day. When he could not find one perfect woman, he drew the best features of five different women, thus creating a single ideal woman.

In art, the model also can be an enigma. People still ponder who the Mona Lisa actually was. Contrary to popular belief, she is not Leonardo da Vinci in drag; recent evidence suggests she was Lisa Gherardini and probably lived in Milano. Seeking out the identity of models also has served its own purpose in modern times, specifically to give life to these women beyond an artist's idealized impression of their features. To be an artist's model was considered scandalous. It was known that they may pose in the nude, and of course a model would be seduced by the artist and be forever an impure woman. On the other hand, a model could become an artist's muse, as was the case with the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie Siddal famously posed for John Everett Millais's exquisite painting of Ophelia by lying in a bathtub to help him capture the realistic image of a woman floating in water. But Siddal is better known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's muse, painting and drawing her over and over, teaching her how to paint, eventually marrying her, and then apotheosizing her in Beata Beatrix after she died from an overdose of laudanum that may or may not have been accidental (Rossetti was with another model, his mistress Fanny Cornforth, when his wife died). Both Gustave Courbet and James McNeill Whistler shared a lover and model, the Irish-born Jo Hiffernan, who posed for works such as the former's La Belle Irlandaise and the latter's Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. And then there are the famous models of artists like Pablo Picasso, women like Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter, who were as famous for his Cubist-like representations of them as they were for being his mistresses.

The study of the artists' models involves biography, social history, connoisseurship, and aesthetics. From it, we can learn much about artists and their work, assuming of course information about these often unknown people is known. For more on Dina Vierny's life with Maillol and Matisse, click here for the NPR article and audio file.

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