Lady Meux

In the previous Museworthy post, commenters Bill and Chris added to my exhibition links by mentioning the new Dutch Paintings show at the Frick Collection, something I neglected to include in the post. Thanks guys! Forgetting Vermeer, the great master of the Dutch Golden Age, is a punishable offense in my opinion. I’ll go sit in the corner now :lol:

Apart from special exhibitions, The Frick is home to one of the most impressive permanent art collections in the world. If you were to ask New Yorkers which of our magnificent museums they most adore, more than a few will claim the Frick as their favorite. The museum’s mansion building, located on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street on Manhattan’s upper east side, was the residence of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.  Among the many treasures in the Frick’s possessions is James McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, 1882. One glance at the alluring beauty, frank stare, and defiant posture of this woman and the viewer is compelled to learn more about her.

WhistlerMeux

The scenario is one we’ve heard before, and it’s almost as old as time itself. For some of us it never loses its intrigue and appeal: young woman of modest and/or sketchy background marries into a wealthy, prominent family, is not accepted in polite society, proceeds to stir things up despite being treated as an outsider and generally doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of her. Lady Meux was born Valerie Susan Langdon in 1847, daughter of a village butcher in the county of Devon. Little is known about her early years, only that she claimed to be an actress and worked as a barmaid and banjo-strumming music hall performer under the name Val Reece. The inevitable rumors of her possibly working as a prostitute swirled about. Fast forward to 1878 when she met, in a tavern or casino of some sort, Sir Henry Meux, 2nd Baronet, member of Parliament and heir to the Meux & Co. brewery fortune. Sparks flew, they married in haste, and the aristocratic circles of England now had an eccentric, strong-willed, violet-eyed interloper in their midst.

In the early 1880s, James Whistler was still recovering from his rancorous libel suit against John Ruskin, a trial which left the artist financially bankrupt. Lady Meux’s offer for some paid commissioned work  couldn’t have come at a better time for Whistler, so naturally he jumped at the chance. The Pink and Grey piece above is one of the works produced from their sessions. This one, Arrangement in Black, is another. It hangs in the Honolulu Museum of Art. Dripping in furs and diamonds, Lady Meux is unabashedly presenting herself as a socialite, as if to say “Yeah, I married into money. You got a problem with that?” . The butcher’s daughter from Devon strikes a pose. Work it girl ;-)

WhistlerMeuxBlack

A third painting was created but was eventually destroyed by Whistler himself. We don’t know the specifics, but apparently he and Lady Meux exchanged testy words during a sitting. His prolonged, tedious demands got on her last nerve, she voiced her impatience, he didn’t appreciate her complaining, and the whole thing was called off. Whatever remained of the painting was obliterated at Whistler’s hands in disgust.

Being shunned by upper-crust Victorian society had zero effect on Lady Meux’s dogged pursuit of her interests. She was an avid collector of ancient Egyptian artifacts and rare Ethiopian manuscripts, owned thoroughbred racehorses, renovated the Meux’s estate at Hertfordshire, which included the installation of a roller rink, and is  believed to have been an incognito attendee at boxing prizefights. It is also said that she had herself transported around town in a carriage pulled by zebras!

But not all of Lady Meux’s ventures were acts of flamboyant self-indulgence. Upon hearing of the British Navy’s tough battles during the Second Boer War, Lady Meux personally ordered and paid for six “12 pounder” high-velocity artillery guns to be sent to the Royal Navy. The War Office refused the shipment, so Lady Meux had them sent directly to South Africa. According to Wikipedia, the Boer War chapter  of Lady Meux’s life – and her colorful life itself – ends this way:

When Sir Hedoworth Lambton, (the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith) returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to thank her for her gift and recount his adventures. She was so taken with him that she made him the chief beneficiary of her will, on condition that he change his surname to Meux (she was without direct heirs). When she died on 20 December 1910, he willingly changed his name by Royal Warrant and inherited the Hertfordshire estate and a substantial interest in the Meux Brewery.

I found online the New York Times obituary of Lady Meux, published in 1910.

Have a great weekend, friends! I’ve got more modeling – of course – and Momma’s birthday on Saturday. See you soon :-)

Meeting Modigliani

I’ve always been ambivalent about the theory behind first impressions and the people we meet. It’s commonly believed that the first is one that sticks and proves accurate over time. While my personal experience has shown this to be largely true, I have known some exceptions. Conversely, I wonder about some first impressions I’ve given in my life. Wish I could take a few of those back! :eek: I try to consider that a person might be having the proverbial “bad day” on that first encounter, but I’m inclined to think that our “truth” – our inherent nature, habits, and tendencies – can never fully be disguised, good day or bad.

Beatrice Hastings (born Emily Alice Haigh) was an English writer and poet, raised in South Africa. Her works were published in the British literary magazine The New Age. Upon moving to Paris in the years before the war, she soon became a known figure in the Bohemian circles that frequented the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse. It was inevitable that she would cross paths with the poster boy of Bohemian Paris life, sculptor and painter Amadeo Modigliani. In 1914, after meeting the then 30 year-old artist Beatrice wrote down her first impressions:

“A complex character. A pig and a pearl. Met in 1914 at a ‘cremerie’. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.”

J-MODIGLIANI'S-PHOTO

Beatrice sure didn’t mince words! But given what we know about Modigliani – his sickliness from tuberculosis, his hashish and opium addictions, and his violent temperament – Hastings’ initial impressions are not surprising. If anything, they’re spot on. Now look at what she wrote about her next encounter with him:

“Met again at the Cafe Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work. Went. Always a book in his pocket, Lautreamont’s Maldoror. Despised everyone but Picasso and Max Jacob. Loathed Cocteau.”

So Modi cleaned up a bit, extended himself, and confided feelings about his peers after spending time with his new acquaintance. These are the kinds of developments that naturally happen when people get to know each other better. Beatrice Hastings’ sharp eye for observation creates a portrait of an intense, complicated  man. But do her second impressions cancel out the first? Not necessarily. The second may simply augment the first. Sure Modigliani came across as more presentable and more well-mannered on the second meeting, but that does not mean the “ferociousness” he radiated the first time had evaporated. It was likely still there, only framed in a broader scope of reference. Or momentarily suspended. Or tempered by a shave :lol:

I met an artist a few years ago whose first impression struck me as snippy. Then I got to know her. We became friends and are friends to this day. She’s a wonderful person but she is, in fact, snippy. Snippy in a harmless, hilarious, sarcastic way that fits well in the context of her personality. Qualities understood in a person as a whole are different than qualities perceived in isolation, detached from knowing the total individual, as they are in first impressions. That’s my theory at least.

One of Modigliani’s many portraits of Beatrice Hastings:

Modigliani-BeatriceHastings

As one would expect, Beatrice Hastings and Modigliani became lovers. They lived together for about two years until Beatrice broke it off. It seems that they were not well-matched and the relationship was doomed from the start. He was jealous and possessive, she was fiercely independent and opinionated. He had a shabby appearance, she was always well-dressed.  He used drugs, she preferred not to. He was driven by passions, she by intellect. They had vicious fights, often in public. But through it all, Beatrice sat for many Modigliani portraits and served as his muse.

hastings-1

After her affair with Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings’ life gradually spiraled downward over the course of many years. She traveled though Europe, broke acrimoniously from The New Age, and harbored bitter feelings about her former colleagues. In 1943 she committed suicide by filling her apartment with gas. In the years before her death, Beatrice had published some scathing pamphlets in which she ridiculed most of the people she had ever known and worked with, with one notable exception: Modigliani. Spared her attacks. Perhaps first impressions don’t stick after all?

Milly and Maud

James McNeill Whistler may not have reached Picasso-levels of romantic entanglements and tempestuousness with his muses, but he sure gave Pablo a run for his money. No slouch in the messy private life arena, Whistler shared both his personal and artistic pursuits with many women.  Female subjects feature prominently in Whistler’s art as clothed figures and nudes, and he had no shortage of models willing to pose for him. They ran the gamut from mistresses, professional models, relatives, to the wives and children of patrons, friends and family members. Some of those ladies became his lovers, others did not.

In all the years of writing this blog I have found that biographical information is much more readily available of those muses who were, at some point, romantically involved with the artist. The models who simply posed as a platonic professional are given short shrift. We’re lucky if we even know the names of some of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done searches to find out the identity of models in artworks, maybe some background information, only to come up with nothing. It’s disappointing. I guess if those gals had just slept with the artists then maybe we’d know their names today ;-)

This dearth of info problem occurred with our man Whistler and his female subject named Milly Finch. Apparently she was a professional model and that’s all we know. As evidence of Miss Finch’s mysterious and unrecorded life, check out her biography page from the University of Glasgow. Question marks and blank spaces. Poor Milly.

But she sure was an outstanding subject. Here, she rocks a fan and a bit of attitude as she reclines on a divan. You go girl! Milly Finch, 1884, by James McNeill Whistler:

Then there is Maud Franklin. Born in Oxfordshire, England, Maud began posing for Whistler, it is believed, around the age of fifteen. By the 1870s and 80s she was his steady model and also his lover. The affair produced two daughters and although they never married, Maud referred to herself as “Mrs. Whistler”. She was also an artist herself.

This is Maud in Whistler’s Arrangement in White and Black. Great gesture and posture.

Whistler’s treatment of Maud was contemptible. At the time of his libel suit against John Ruskin, he effectively abandoned Maud, who was pregnant with his child, alone in a London hotel room and misled her as to his whereabouts. But Maud stood by Whistler for a few more years, throughout his financial bankruptcy and a particularly difficult time in Venice during which Maud suffered poor health and societal rejection. Then in 1888, James Whistler married another woman, Beatrice Godwin, which was devastating to Maud. She later moved to Paris, married twice, and refused to speak publicly about Whistler. In an interesting anecdote, both Maud Franklin and Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler’s previous mistress and muse, attended his funeral in London in 1903. The two women, whose romantic relationships with Whistler had been over for decades, were witnessed in profound, open expressions of grief. Maud had traveled all the way from Paris to pay her respects.

Portrait of Maud Franklin by James McNeill Whistler:

And we go back to Milly Finch, the artist’s model about whom we know almost nothing, but at least didn’t have to endure an affair with Whistler and the insensitive treatment it brought. This is drama-free modelin’ Milly in Harmony in Coral and Blue:

Emilie Flöge – Art and Fashion with Gustav Klimt

I spent a delicious hour browsing in the art section of Strand Bookstore the other night. For non-New Yorkers, or anyone who hasn’t experienced it, you should know that the Art section of Strand is a thing to behold. Although I don’t always, this time I walked out with a purchase: softcover book of Gustav Klimt drawings. At $6.95 a great bargain.

My book purchase sent me into Klimt mode. He’s one of my very favorite artists and it’s always good to re-visit favorites from time to time, to refresh our adoration, and be reminded of why we love them. So the time has come for me to post a magnificent Klimt that I’ve been meaning to share for the longest time. It’s archetypal Klimt. It’s dazzling. It’s colorful. It’s the one and only Emilie Flöge.

Portrait of Emilie Flöge, 1902, Gustav Klimt:

To say that women were Klimt’s preferred artistic subjects would be a spectacular understatement. Indeed, Klimt was a superb landscape painter, but his works of female models are his most notable, and memorable, creations. He acted on his obsessions with women unabashedly, and those obsessions were alive and kicking not just on his canvases but in his personal life as well. The man had a ferocious sexual appetite.

Emilie Flöge, however, was more than just some passing object of Klimt’s lust and affection. Not just another model strolling nude around his studio. Emilie was his partner, muse, and companion for years, right up until his death in 1918. They first met in 1891 when Emilie’s sister Helene married Ernst Klimt, Gustav’s brother. When Ernst died suddenly a year later, Klimt took on the role of guardian for Helene and became close with then 18 year old Emilie, also his sister-in-law.

Emilie was a skilled seamstress and, along with her sister Helene and older sister Pauline, started a dressmaking company that specialized in haute couture. The Flöge sisters salon, located in the heart of Vienna, was a great success. Emilie was an excellent businesswoman and a free-thinking, visionary designer. She created fashions during a most exciting, thriving era for all areas of arts and design – the turn-of-the-century and early 20th century. For women’s garments this signified a gradual goodbye to the dreaded corset, and the ushering in of looser shapes and less-constricting styles, which became known as “Reformed Dress”. Attitudes were changing. The Flöge sisters also promoted bolder patterns, many of which were designed by Emilie’s companion, Gustav Klimt. He also took fashion photographs, drew sketches, and designed some dresses himself. I bet all you men who admire Klimt as a macho, womanizing painter didn’t know he contributed his talents to the fashion world did you? I think it’s so cool! Klimt even designed the smock-like garment he is often wearing in photographs. Gustav Klimt, fashionista and metrosexual :lol:

In researching Emilie’s life on the internet, I found some of the best information on fashion websites. Check this one out and this one. And more photos of Emilie modeling her fashions on this message board.

It is unclear whether Klimt and Emilie’s relationship was romantic and sexual or purely platonic and professional. But Emilie is believed to be the female model in Klimt’s famous work The Kiss, which obviously suggests a sexual relationship. Either way, the two shared a very close bond. Their artistic pursuits and bohemian sensibilities made them an impressive pair, sought out by Viennese high society for commissioned art and custom made fashions.

This is a cute picture of them in their frocks:

My Klimt post from March 2009.

Murder on the Roof – Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and the Trial of the Century

As much as people hate to admit it, everyone loves a good scandal. The more sensational the story and the more depraved the players, the better. What comprises a “scandal” these days is little more than an idiot NY congressman sending pictures of his dick over Twitter. But “old school” scandals are much more salacious in comparison. There must have been something in the air during the Gilded Age because those folks found themselves embroiled in some seriously sordid business.

Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas Day, 1884 in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Her father, Winfield Scott Nesbit, was a moderately successful lawyer who, upon his death, left his family in a severe financial crisis, without savings or assets of any kind. Young Evelyn, her mother, and her brother Howard, struggled with poverty and Mrs. Nesbit tried to make ends meet by selling off furniture, taking in boarders, and working as a laundress. Bills piled up, debt mounted, and the fatherless family often went without food. They moved from place to place.

But the Nesbits’ fortune began to change as Evelyn grew into her early teens and something became overwhelmingly clear – she was beautiful. Her flawless skin, delicate features, and luxurious light brown hair took peoples’ breath away. Evelyn’s enchanting beauty would be the Nesbit family’s ticket out of poverty. And into trouble.

Evelyn Nesbit:

At the suggestion of a family friend, Evelyn Nesbit began posing for artists in the Philadelphia area. One referral led to another and another, and the family eventually moved to New York so Evelyn could pursue more modeling opportunities. Soon Evelyn’s image was appearing in paintings, drawings, and magazine illustrations. She was very much in demand.

Careerwise, Evelyn is perhaps best known as the epitome of the “Gibson Girl”, the creation of the popular American artist Charles Dana Gibson whose illustrations appeared in all the major publications of the day. Evelyn’s modeling résumé also included posing for artists James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick Church, and photographer Rudolf Eikemeyer.

Evelyn Nesbit by Rudolf Eikemeyer:

But it was Evelyn’s part as a chorus girl in the stage musical “Florodora” which brought her the attention of rich, powerful, predatory men, specifically New York City’s most preeminent, highly influential architect – the one and only Stanford White.

You could say that Stanford White WAS New York architecture. Through his vision, ambition, and design talents, White and his firm McKim, Mead, and White, were responsible for so many of the city’s structures it’s almost impossible to list them all: private mansions along Fifth Avenue, the iconic arch at Washington Square Park, the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Club, Columbia University, the Manhattan Municipal Building, and the Brooklyn Museum just to name a few. And that’s only New York.

Stanford White moved in the most elite, monied circles of New York society. He hobnobbed with the Astors and the Vanderbilts. He was, both professionally and socially, a player. Make no mistake about it. This was a very, very prominent man.

This was also a married man with children. A man who led the proverbial double life. He kept an apartment on West 24th Street for recreational activities. In this lavish apartment, decorated with antiques, tapestries, paintings, gilded mirrors, and plush furniture, White had also installed a red velvet swing for erotic fun. He entertained young ladies, usually showgirls, and threw parties for his friends. White made arrangements to meet Evelyn Nesbit, the fresh-faced 16 year old beauty he spotted in the chorus.

Being the rich entitled man that he was, who could have whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it, White of course got Evelyn up to his apartment along with her friend from the show. And like all his young, naive conquests, Evelyn agreed to hop into the swing and have a playful time. She was not worldly enough to know that she was indulging a middle-aged man’s sexual fetish. During a later visit, this time unchaperoned, White treated Evelyn to a nice meal and gave her champagne. A lot of champagne. More champagne than a young girl can handle. He then had her put on a yellow silk kimono. And then, 16 year-old Evelyn became groggy and passed out. She woke up hours later feeling she had been violated. Sadly, it was her first time. White made Evelyn promise not to tell anyone, including her mother. She obeyed.

So a 47  year old married man with children took sleazy advantage of an unconscious sixteen year old girl. This is undisputed. Nice move, Stanford :evil: And things would only get worse.

White continued to see Evelyn as a mistress. Evelyn’s mother, who appreciated White’s generous financial assistance to the family, approved of the arrangement. Besides, Evelyn claimed to be fond of Stanford White despite the incident and felt some degree of affection for him, probably as a father figure. She took to calling him “Stanny”. During this time, other men expressed interest in Evelyn. The actor John Barrymore was one. Another was a man named Harry Thaw.

Harry Kendall Thaw was a complete jerk and lowlife. He was the delinquent. deadbeat son of a wealthy Pittsburgh family. A spoiled brat heir to a multi-million dollar mining and railroad fortune. He was a sicko, a sadist, and a braggart with a miserable attitude who was prone to belligerent outbursts, such as physically assaulting people and overturning tables in restaurants. He never held a job. He was a morphine and cocaine addict. He was expelled from Harvard for a violent incident with a shotgun. When he lived in New York he falsely claimed to be a theater producer and lured young girls, who had dreams of careers on Broadway, back to his apartment where he tied them up, abused them, raped them, and beat them with whips. So basically, Thaw was a piece of shit.

Evelyn Nesbit actually married this dirtbag – very reluctantly – under intense pressure from Thaw’s mother. She convinced Evelyn that settling down in marriage would change her son for the better and straighten out his wild ways. Evelyn also reasoned that since Stanford White’s interest in her was waning and seemed to have no more use for her, few other men would either. Except for Shaw who was completely obsessed with her. He pursued her aggressively and refused to leave her alone. After rejecting his marriage proposals several times and suffering his physical abuse, Evelyn, with no one looking out for her best interests and well-being, married the monster Thaw in 1905. She was 21 years old.

Evelyn Nesbit circa 1901:

Bad blood existed between Harry Thaw and Stanford White even before Evelyn came into the picture. The two men simply despised each other, but Thaw’s hate for White was more extreme and paranoid. He was convinced that the respected architect was badmouthing him around town, using his considerable influence to bar Thaw from all the elite clubs and keep him relegated to the fringes of New York’s high society.

Thaw had also heard the rumors about White and Evelyn, but he wanted her to confirm them. Obsessed, Thaw harassed Evelyn relentlessly to tell him every detail about what happened. Even though Evelyn said she didn’t want to talk about it, she broke under the pressure and finally admitted to Thaw that Stanford White had in fact taken her virginity. Thaw seethed with rage and plotted revenge against Stanford White, the man who had “ruined” his wife.

On the night of June 25th, 1906, Harry Thaw brought Evelyn to attend a musical production on the rooftop theater of the old Madison Square Garden, a building designed by who else but the architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White. It was a glamorous, glittery night of affluent well-dressed patrons clinking champagne glasses and having a grand old time. Stanford White sat at a front table while Harry Thaw and Evelyn sat toward the back. Thaw wore a long black overcoat that the coatroom girl attempted to check for him several times, but Thaw refused to give it up.

Then, as a performer broke into the song “If I Could Love a Million Girls”, Harry Thaw made his way through the audience toward Stanford White. He pulled a gun out of his coat and shot White three times at point blank range, in the face. At first, the clueless crowd thought it was either a practical joke or part of the performance. But once everyone got a glimpse of Stanford White’s bloody body slumped on the floor near his table, screams and panic ensued. The theater manager pleaded for calm. The tablecloth that had been hastily placed over Stanford White’s dead body had already, within minutes, been soaked through with blood. It was pandemonium. Chorus girls were terrified, musicians were confused, waiters were flustered, and the beau monde of New York’s high society fled for the exits.

Like the OJ Simpson trial of 1995, the Thaw-White murder trial was a sensationalistic media circus. It was actually worse in terms of scandalousness. The mukraking press was all over it and newspapers, many owned by scandal-monger William Randolph Hearst, exposed all the dirty laundry and ugly secrets. Everything came spilling out, every salacious detail, mainly those of Stanford White’s seductions of young girls. It was blaring headlines, witnesses testifying, tales of debauchery and underage chorus girls, self-indulgent rich men, sex, jealousy, insanity, champagne, and red velvet swings. One New York paper editorialized that “the flash of that pistol lighted up the depths of degradation, an abyss of moral turpitude” brought on by “powerful, reckless, openly-flaunted wealth”. Although Harry Thaw was the defendant in the case, Stanford White’s character was also on trial. He was painted as a lecherous middle aged man whose life of decadence finally caught up with him. And his reputation was tarnished forever. In the meantime, the ever-deluded  Harry Thaw was confident he would be acquitted and hailed as a husband who did what he did to defend his wife’s honor.

The first trial resulted in a hung jury. Shaw was retried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to eight years in an asylum for the criminally insane in Fishkill, NY. Thaw was released in 1913, granted a divorce from Evelyn, and within a year had committed another violent crime; the kidnapping and beating of a 19 year old man named Fred Gump. Terrified of facing new criminal charges, Thaw attempted to slash his own throat while hiding in a boarding house in Philadelphia. He was once again confined to an asylum for another seven years. The charges were eventually dropped.

In 1947, Harry Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami, Florida. He was 76 years old. Of his estimated $1 million fortune, he left a mere $10,00 to Evelyn Nesbit in his will.

After the second trial Evelyn tried to get on with her life. In 1910 she gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw. Although she claimed that Harry was the father, the baby the result of a conjugal visit during Thaw’s confinement, Thaw denied it. Evelyn worked as a vaudeville perfomer and appeared in some silent films. She married Jack Clifford in 1916 but he abandoned her two years later. Evelyn struggled with alcoholism and depression, and made several suicide attempts. But she made it through those dark periods. She wrote a memoir and served as a technical adviser on the 1955 film “The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing”, a fictionalized account of her life. Joan Collins portrayed Evelyn Nesbit in the film. In 1981, Elizabeth McGovern portrayed Evelyn in the film “Ragtime”, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel. In her later years Evelyn found contentment teaching ceramics classes. In 1967 Evelyn Nesbit died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California. She was 82.

This is my favorite picture of Evelyn. It is more candid than her posed shots, and if you look at it closely you can almost see, in her eyes and radiant smile,  just the regular, very pretty, fun, free spirited, turn-of-the-century American girl that she was, before she was corrupted and betrayed by unscrupulous privileged men. Just a lovely portrait.

My dear readers, as much as I really enjoyed writing this blog post there is, believe it or not, still much more to the story! Lots of interesting details, anecdotes, transcripts, photographs. It is a very well-documented event, and the abundance of information made it more difficult to condense into a blog post. So I had to pick and choose what to include and consider length issues. Here are links to sources on the topic in case anyone is interested in reading more.

Stanford White Murder on TruTV Crime

Evelyn Nesbit – The Stories Behind the Stones

The Harry Thaw Trials

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing/Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Evelyn Nesbit

Stanford White Murder Trial with transcripts

The Girl, the Swing, and a Row House in Ruins/NY Times

McKim, Mead, and White New York Architecture

Bygone Fashion – Evelyn Nesbit – Gibson Girl Story

Book Review – “American Eve” -NY Times

Art For Art’s Sake

You gotta love James McNeill Whistler. As the pretentious art establishment attempted – and still attempts to this day – to analyze the “meanings” of paintings, Whistler would have none of it. A staunch proponent of “art for art’s sake”, the American expatriate artist thought the dissection and deconstruction of his work nothing more than a pointless, pompous exercise.

Whistler’s grievance was that art had long been thought to serve a purpose-  a moral, social, or political function of some sort. An artist began a painting for a specific, understood objective. The end result would represent maybe a religious narrative, an historical event, a mythological tale, or perhaps even a psychological exploration into the human condition. To create art merely for “art’s sake” was virtually unheard of or not taken seriously, that is until Whistler and some of his 19th century cohorts promoted what is known as the Aesthetic Movement.

Why not simply create a painting because you want to? Because the subject matter is intriguing to you? Because it inspires you? Because it will be beautiful? Can’t such a creation possess it’s own intrinsic value? Shouldn’t the expression of the artist’s own personal vision, disentangled from the public’s expectations, be enough to qualify as “art”? Whistler vehemently believed so. Indeed, much of the art prior to Whistler’s day carried a lot of baggage, or as Whistler called it, “claptrap” . The time had come for artists to achieve true freedom – the freedom to create without obligation of any kind, without the burden of messages and morals and social acceptance. Without all that complicated, weighty “meaning” stuff. The pursuit of beauty was enough.

I also think that Whistler was rebelling against the idea that works of art belonged to the public or were created to satisfy the public’s sensibilities. But the reality is that an artist can be motivated by any number of things. I know just from my own experience as a model, that artists often create work to explore certain visual aspects of painting – spatial relationships, composition, tonal contrasts, form, line, etc. Whistler, for example, was interested in experimenting with limited color palettes, as many of his works are titled “Harmony in Blue”, “Symphony in Green”, “Red and Black”, “Pearl and Silver”, and so on. In other words, an artist can create art for whatever reason they damn well want.

But the art establishment refused to cooperate with Whistler’s philosophy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the debut of his famous work The White Girl or Symphony in White No. 1.

The model was Whistler’s muse and companion Joanna Hiffernan, a strong-willed Irish-born beauty with a mane of thick long hair and fair skin. (More on Jo in another post). She stands dressed in white against a white drapery backdrop, her face expressionless, her stance somewhat stiff. Predictably, the painting was rejected by the notoriously uptight and conventional Paris Salon of 1863. But it was eventually shown at the Salon des Refusés.

Critics were perplexed by the piece and went wild with their “interpretations”. Certainly the white dress represented a virginal woman, right? But did the bear skin rug suggest a ruined virgin? An innocent girl who had been ravaged? Yes, many of them jumped in the “lost innocence” bandwagon. Or was she a bride on her wedding day? You know, because she is holding a flower? Was it an allegory? Surely there was some story, some narrative behind the scene. Actually there wasn’t, but still it kept going. Other critics assumed she represented the heroine in a previously published novel by Wilkie Collins titled “The Woman in White”. But Whistler had no idea what they were talking about and was irritated by the comparison. He had neither read nor even heard of the book.

What did it mean? What did the painting MEAN????? The speculation and deconstruction persisted. They came up with every possible interpretation except for the correct one which is explained succinctly in Whistler’s own words: “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of white curtain”. Well. There you have it :-)

The First Mrs. van Rijn

Sometimes when I write posts about the female subjects of famous art, I find myself disappointed in the lack of information about these women.To be fair, many of them are given substantial biographical treatment. But others not so much. Rembrandt’s first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, is one of those shortchanged women.

What we do know is that Saskia was born in 1612 in Leeuwarden, in the Dutch province of Friesland, the youngest of eight children. Their father was a wealthy lawyer, but both he and his wife died by 1624. Orphaned at the age of twelve, young Saskia was raised by her older sister Hiskje. Her cousin, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, was an Amsterdam art dealer with a successful gallery, and it was through him that Saskia met Rembrandt. They married in 1634 when Saskia was 22 years old.

One of Rembrandt’s earliest works of Saskia is this silverpoint drawing from 1633 titled Saskia In A Straw Hat. His astonishing ability to to capture gesture and character, with such proficiency and ease, is evident in this wonderful piece. In it, you can see the gift of observation that made Rembrandt such a brilliant portraitist:

Rembrandt’s portrait of Saskia painted at the time of their marriage:

Life was good for Rembrandt during these years. He enjoyed a successful, lucrative career as a much in demand portrait painter. He had pupils, clients, Hendrick as his art dealer and Saskia as his lovely young wife and model.

Saskia gave birth to three children, all of whom died in early infancy. Their fourth attempt at having a child gave them a boy, named Titus, born in 1641. He would be the only surviving child of Rembrandt and Saskia. Tragically, Saskia died just a year after Titus was born, probably of tuberculosis.

Saskia With a Child, pen sketch, 1636:

Portrait of Saskia from 1643, oil on panel:

Rembrandt did not handle his post-Saskia life very well; mismanaged finances, threatened inheritances, a scorned wet- nurse who sued him for “breach of promise”, and an affair with his housekeeper who would become his second wife. But that’s all drama for another blog post! This one’s for Saskia. I still feel that I don’t really know her, except through Rembrandt’s portrayals. But I suppose if you wanted your life visually immortalized, in the absence of other information, Rembrandt is the guy you’d choose to do it, even if he pulls some crazy scale weirdness like this drawing, Self-Portrait with Saskia. I know Rembrandt is a master and everything, but what the hell is going on here?? Either Saskia was ten feet behind him or Rembrandt had a really giant head :lol:

Fernande Olivier

Eva, Olga, Marie-Therese, Dora, Francoise, Genevieve, Jacqueline. To art lovers and muse enthusiasts, Picasso’s mistresses/wives are familiar to us on a first name basis. We know those beautiful fascinating women listed above, and we know Picasso’s paintings of them. I think, however, that the woman with whom Picasso had his first serious relationship receives somewhat less attention than she deserves. After all, this is the woman who took up with Picasso when he was still basically a nobody, just another struggling artist in Paris.

Her name was Fernande Olivier, but she was born Amélie Lang in 1881 in the garment district of Paris. A child out of wedlock, Fernande was orphaned almost immediately when her mother dropped her off at a relative’s house and was rarely seen again. The foundling infant was raised by resentful, abusive relatives, and it’s no surprise that Fernande would develop emotional issues with trust, intimacy, and affection.

Fernande Olivier with a little girl, in a photograph taken by Picasso:

As a young teen, Fernande Olivier excelled at school and found escape in the popular novels of the day. Her passion for reading expanded, as it often does, into writing. As a result, Fernande kept extensive personal journals throughout her life. When she was 18, Fernande was assaulted and raped by a male acquaintance. Rather than expressing sympathy and protection, her adoptive family forced Fernande to marry the man, probably as a way of getting rid of her.

The “marriage”, predictably, was miserable, and marred Fernande’s perceptions of sex and male/female relations. In her journals, Fernande asked simply “Is this really what love is?”. She lamented the lack of tenderness and affection, and described sex with her husband as “cruel, brutal possession”, and “filthy and hateful”. Fernande deserved a lot better than the shithead she was pressured into marrying. Believing that she could find a better life out there in the world, Fernande picked up and left the dirtbag behind. You go girl.

Soon Fernande was working as an artist’s model in Montmartre, thanks to a sculptor who offered her her first posing job. Life among the Paris bohemians suited Fernande well, although the search for genuine intimacy and tenderness with a man was still elusive. Fernande had many lovers, none of whom encouraged Fernande to pursue her own interests or treated her as anything other than a model and mistress. Some even mistook her for a prostitute.

It was inevitable that Fernande and Picasso would cross paths in 1904 Paris. Fernande recorded her first impressions of the “Spanish artist” in her diaries:

For some time now I’ve been bumping into him wherever I go, and he looks at me with his huge deep eyes, sharp but brooding, full of suppressed fire. I don’t find him particularly attractive, but his strangely intense gaze forces me to look at him in return, although I’ve never answered him when he tries to make conversation. I don’t know where to place him on the social scale and I can’t tell how old he is.

Picasso was 23, and in 1905 he and Fernande moved in together at the Bateau Lavoir studios. The relationship would last several years. Fernande, of course, posed for Picasso regularly and was the subject of many of his Rose Period works.

This is Picasso’s Fernande With a Black Mantilla, from 1905:

Given Fernande’s issues with cold, insensitive male personalities, one might wonder how and why she’d embark on a long term relationship with, of all people, the conventionally macho, self-centered Picasso. Well the answer is that genuine love existed between the two. Yes, Picasso truly loved Fernande and even asked her to marry him. This is not to say that the relationship wasn’t flawed. It was. The notoriously jealous Picasso forbid Fernande from posing for any other artists while they were together and didn’t want her to leave the house without him. He would literally lock her in like a hostage.

But in her journals, Fernande acknowledged Picasso’s tender side. Yes, he had one. When she was sick, he took care of her and was occasionally able to express love and kindness- that is when he allowed himself to do so. But Picasso’s attentiveness toward his lover was hardly consistent and could not be counted on in the long term.

This beautiful drawing is called Portrait de Fernande, 1906. From the page on pablo-ruiz-picasso.net.

Things started to fall apart between Picasso and Fernande around 1909. They spent the summer at Horta de Ebro, and Picasso created a series of  Cubist Fernande portraits there. But when they returned to Paris, the arguing got worse. Friend of the couple Gertrude Stein witnessed the conflicts between the two and observed that Picasso was picking on trivial things. Fernande’s patience had been pushed to brink and she yelled at Picasso, calling him “a precocious child”. Things exacerbated when Fernande developed a painful, very serious kidney infection, which was too much for Picasso to handle.

Fernande and Picasso continued to live together as friends even though their romance was over. Then, in 1912, Picasso met and became involved with Eva Gouel.

Many years later, Fernande was alone and in very ill health. She contacted Picasso for help and he obliged with a small pension. It was the least he could do for his first muse, his first serious companion, the woman who stood by him during those early Paris years. Fernande Olivier died in 1966. Fortunately, she left behind her colorful, observant, deeply felt memoirs about her life.

Some links to articles about Fernande Olivier:

“Whose Melancholy” from artnet

Artist and Model” from the NY Times

Modeling for Munch

This blog serves so many delightful purposes for me. One is that it provides me with a space to simply share a painting that is either a longtime personal favorite or one I just happened upon via my searches. Today I discovered a knockout that impresses me with both the artistic creation and the modeling.

This painting from the great Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is called Model by the Wicker Chair. A work from 1921, it is considered a late period Munch, or the “Post- Scream” era. It refers to the last two decades of the artist’s life when he was living and working at his home in Ekely located in western Oslo. Today this piece hangs in the Munch Museum in Norway. I may never get there, but if I’m ever so lucky I will no doubt make a beeline through that museum to this vivid and intriguing painting.

The model was Annie Fjeldbu, one of many models who posed for Munch in his studio. A young dancer, she clearly knew what she was doing here. Whether the standing pose with bowed head was her idea or Munch’s, Annie presented it perfectly. The strength, stature, and sensuality of her body is evident, and her mane of long dark hair only adds to her natural charisma. Perhaps these qualities were the reason Munch placed her in a cluttered room setting – maybe he sensed that she could dominate the busy scene and hold her own among the objects, colors and splashy loose brush strokes. Annie is, simultaneously, part of and separate from her surroundings. With different views, she can be interpreted as emerging from the environment or receding into it. Or both. Yes, the blanket on the chair is prominent, but in my eyes Annie still wins. Either way, the composition is fascinating.

This is my new favorite painting. Enigmatic, moody, it just works really well overall. Artists help me out here. Why am I so taken with this painting? One sure explanation is that it conveys an authentic feel of model and artist working together, to which I can certainly relate. That’s probably what attracted me to it in the first place and why it elicited such a strong response. I’m so digging this painting! Great job Edvard and Annie.

Mark Twain Looks at Titian’s Venus

In his 1880 travelogue Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain described it as “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses”. It wasn’t the nudity that prompted such a statement but rather “the attitude of one of her arms and hand”. The painting is Titian’s Renaissance masterpiece Venus of Urbino, and the “attitude”  to which Twain refers is one of implied self-gratification. Talk about an “active” figure! ;-)

The work was commissioned in 1538 by Guidobaldo Il Della Rovere, the Duke of Urbino. Although the Duke simply requested a nude, Titian made her – or titled her – “Venus”. But she is not the classical mythological figure to which we are accustomed. This is not Botticelli’s Venus. Instead, Titian’s is an object of erotica, a seductive siren whose blatant sexuality borders on obscenity, at least by 16th century standards.

This is Titian’s Venus of Urbino:

Titian was certainly not the first artist to paint a reclining female nude, but it’s that left hand placement which supplies the game-changing characteristic. Shocked viewers think, “This woman is pleasuring herself!”. Nonchalantly. Casually. Completely indifferent to the people in the next room. The sleeping dog, I suspect, could not care less :lol:

Like most of Titian’s models, the exact identity of his Venus is unknown, which is too bad. Many believe she was Titian’s favorite girl from a Venice brothel. Others think it might have been the Duke’s young bride-to-be. Either way, she is the immortal subject of what is widely considered “the sexiest painting” ever created.

As for Mark Twain’s reaction after having entered the Uffizi Gallery and laid his eyes upon Venus of Urbino, his words are taken terribly out of context. Internet articles quote him constantly as proof of the painting’s offensiveness, but they are missing the larger point. The entire passage needs to be read. Like the humorist and social commentator that he was, Twain’s expression of moral outrage was not literal but feigned to make a point about artistic incarnation.

Twain writes:

If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl –but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to –and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her –just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world…yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian’s beast, but won’t stand a description of it in words.

Twain is making the rather astute observation that a written description of such a scene – a woman touching herself – would prompt horror and discomfort, and probably cause the author to be run out of town. But a visual depiction – which carries beautiful, decorative qualities of technique and composition along with the scene – makes a sexy, lascivious painting tolerable, even acceptable, for it is still a glorious, timeless expression of nudity and sexuality despite pushing the boundaries of social mores. It is still celebrated, still embraced. Twain believes that he would never get away with it if he described it in writing and that painters are given more latitude. I think he has a point, don’t you? Processing words is a different mental exercise than processing images. Could it be that one of them makes us squirm more than the other?

So the next time an artist feels his freedom of expression is threatened or unappreciated, he should probably be grateful that he’s not a writer and keep in mind Mark Twain’s envious words that “art has its privileges”.

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Effie Gray’s Revenge

Although I’ve never really experienced it firsthand, I don’t doubt the old adage that “revenge is sweet”. Those of us who don’t have a vindictive nature can still appreciate the art of “payback” as spectators when it involves other people. In plays, novels, movies, in the news when criminals or corrupt public officials are hauled off to jail, most of us take pleasure in retribution for the bad guys. Or if not a “bad guy” per se, maybe just a big fucking jerk who had it coming. In his treatment toward his wife Effie Gray, 19th century art critic John Ruskin was such a jerk. And Effie’s subsequent life choices, one by one, slowly but surely, extracted sweet, sweet revenge.

Euphemia “Effie” Chalmers Gray was born in Scotland in 1828. Her family and the Ruskins were well-acquainted and Effie first met John when she was just twelve years old. He was an only child who was very close with his parents. Some might say abnormally close. As Effie grew into a vivacious, outgoing, very attractive young woman, Ruskin began to court her. He composed romantic love letters and poems and seemed head over heels in love. They married on April 10, 1848.

Painting of Effie Gray by Thomas Richmond:

The union of Effie Gray and John Ruskin disintegrated immediately, and when I say “immediately” I mean it literally, as in their wedding night. To Effie’s great humiliation, Ruskin rejected her sexually and the marriage was never consummated – not that night or any night. But they remained married, for a time.

So what was the problem between the newlyweds? John Ruskin is considered a great “thinker” and “critic”, a brilliant, intelligent man. But he clearly had a very, very stupid and naive streak in his psychology. Apparently he had spent so much time gazing upon artwork that idealized the female form – smooth, hairless, flawless sculptures and glorified figure paintings- that he actually believed that real women were supposed to look that way. So when he first saw Effie’s naked body, he recoiled in horror. What a moron.

Scholars and art historians have speculated as to what the offending bodily characteristic might have been. Most seem to think it was Effie’s pubic hair, something John Ruskin apparently thought women didn’t possess :roll: Others suggest it might have been menstrual blood, in which case Ruskin, the so-called “brilliant” man of letters, needed a basic course in human biology.

Effie Gray wrote to her father about their failed marital relationship:

He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.

“disgusted with my person”. Effete, callow, uppity John Ruskin was “disgusted” by his wife’s body. How pathetic.

And here’s Ruskin’s version in a statement from his annulment proceedings:

It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.

That statement reeks of arrogance and misogyny. This is clearly a cold, shallow man of superficial values and warped concepts of sexuality. Rather than address his own issues – his sexual orientation or problems with intimacy in general – John Ruskin opted instead to embarrass Effie Gray, and place the blame of his male inadequacy squarely on her. He was neither a man nor a gentleman. He was just an asshat.

Five years of marital misery passed, with Effie trying desperately to make the best of it, all the while feeling shunned and rejected by her husband, trapped in a horrible union. She kept herself busy with travel and social functions. But it wasn’t until John Everett Millais came along that she finally caught a glimpse of what happiness could be.

John Everett Millais was one of the foremost painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was also a good friend of John Ruskin. In 1853, he asked Effie to pose for him. Isolated and denigrated in her marriage, Effie jumped at the opportunity. Even Ruskin himself supported the idea. The result was a famous work entitled The Order of Release, which depicts a woman freeing her husband, a Scottish rebel, from jail while holding their child.

An outstanding painting with a powerful narrative The Order of Release works on many levels – movement, emotion, composition. It was a great hit when exhibited in London that year and solidified Millais’ reputation.

Effie and Millais became close during their work together. She grew comfortable enough to confide in him her marital woes and express her profound unhappiness. When the three of them took a trip to Scotland together, Effie and Millais continued to bond even while Ruskin was around. A bona-fide “love triangle” was in the works. And Milllais, after listening to Effie’s stories about Ruskin’s treatment of her, came to despise his friend and mentor.

Effie couldn’t take it anymore and confronted John Ruskin about their miserable marriage. She wanted out, and was deeply in love with Millais. But dissolving the union would not be simple. A divorce in Victorian England was complicated and costly. With a strong support system of family and friends, Effie decided to pursue an annulment. But even that wouldn’t be easy. Depositions had to be given, papers had to be filed, and accusations would fly. On top of all that, Effie was required to endure the indignity of a physical exam to prove she was still a virgin.

Effie filed for annulment on the grounds of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency”, a perfectly accurate charge in my opinion. Ruskin counter filed by accusing Effie of “mental imbalance”, adding that he feared to have sex with her because if she became pregnant their children risked inheriting her mental illness. What a lying, toxic prick. I hate this guy!

After much ugliness, gossip, and public scandal, the marriage of Effie Gary and John Ruskin was mercifully annulled in 1854. Then in 1855 Effie married John Millais and, over the next 14 years, bore him eight children. EIGHT children. Well, well, well, not bad for a physically “disgusting” woman. Obviously Millais found her capable of arousing “passion”. And as far as we know, none of the children had mental problems.

Given that this was the Victorian Age and therefore oppressive toward women, Effie was barred from most circles due to her annulment, a virtual “scarlet letter” of shame. But in spite of being branded an outcast, Effie’s new life with Millais was a rewarding and successful one, and the social ostracism was a small price to pay for having John Ruskin out of her life for good.

Throughout their marriage, Effie continued to model for John Millais, serving as his artistic muse. Here she is in Peace Concluded, representing motherhood and domestic bliss:

John Ruskin, being the small, petty man that he was, began to give Millais’ work negative reviews after he married Effie. As if motivated purely by spite, he labelled Millais’ art a “catastrophe”. No John, your defective psychology is the “catastrophe”.

But the saga doesn’t end there. Years later, a 50 year-old John Ruskin sought to marry a 17 year-old girl named Rose La Touche. Ew. Just ew. Anyway, Rose’s parents were rightly concerned about Ruskin’s interest and contacted Effie Gray to get inside information on the old pervert who was trying to marry their daughter. Effie Gray told them the truth – that Ruskin was a weirdo and an asshole (probably not the words she used!). Hence the engagement was broken off, and Ruskin never married, or tried to marry, anyone ever again. Praise the lord!

The icing on the cake in this tale of karmic retribution is Ruskin’s final screw up, this time in his professional life. A libel suit was brought against him by the artist James Whistler. The trial and negative publicity destroyed Ruskin’s reputation. He fell into a state of mental derangement and died in 1900. Though Effie died three years earlier in 1897, she still got the last word. What’s that other old adage, about how “the best revenge is living well”? Then well played, Effie. Well played :-)

Effie again, in her later years, painted by her husband John Millais:

The Scandalous Women blog has an excellent, more detailed account of the Ruskin/Gray/Millais affair. I recommend it.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this article from The Guardian about a feature film in the works. This is incredible! The wonderful Emma Thompson has written the screenplay, and the terrific young actress Carey Mulligan, who was just nominated for an Academy Award for the film An Education, is cast as Effie Gray. I’m loving this! The article is super interesting, so please check it out.

“Girls On Rocks” – Art and Illustration from Maxfield Parrish

What is it about a girl on a rock? For decades that imagery has appeared in art, illustration, photography, and advertising (and more than a few men’s personal fantasties ;-) ) So it makes sense that the prolific and popular 20th century artist and illustrator Maxfield Parrish, would produce many works with the girls on rocks theme. All highly idealized, all fanciful, vividly colored and meticulously executed.

Son of an engraver and landscape artist father, Maxfield Parrish was a Philadelphia native. After attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studying under the renowned Howard Pyle, Parrish soon found himself in the midst of what is termed the “Golden Age of Illustration”, at the turn of the century. In fact, he became one of its illustrious shining stars. When the great Norman Rockwell calls you his “idol”, you have definitely made your mark.

Hired for commission after commission, Parrish created the illustrations for the popular children’s books of the day, like Mother Goose, The Arabian Nights, and countless magazine covers for Colliers, Harper’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Maxfield Parrish enjoyed a steady income and tremendous popularity, at the height of his fame receiving over $2000 per illustration. He and his wife Lydia settled in Cornish, New Hampshire, where they lived comfortably off the revenue from advertising royalties and frequently entertained a virtual who’s who of guests, among them President WIlson and his wife Ellen, journalist Walter Lippman, and the legendary actress Ethel Barrymore, just to name a few.

With the luxury of financial security, Parrish decided to turn his attention to oil painting. This allowed him to not only choose his own subjects but to work from life models. One of Parrish’s favorite models was Kitty Owen, the granddaughter of the famous orator, lawyer, and politician William Jennings Bryant. She is the model for this painting, Wild Geese. The pose, incidentally, is the “upward dog” in yoga. Yay Kitty! Namaste :-)

This is Kitty again in Canyon, from 1923:

It’s been a fairly common practice for artists to enlist their children as models for their art. Matisse famously used his daughter Marguerite and Maxfield Parrish followed in Matisse’s footsteps when he used his daughter Jean for several of his works. This is Jean as a lovely teenager, in Stars from 1926:

Though his images may have been dreamy and imaginative, giving off a feeling of “make-believe” and almost mythical in nature, Maxfield Parrish’s painting technique was, in reality, very methodical and labor-intensive. He would apply thin layers of varnish in between layers of opaque pigment, repeatedly, until he achieved the desired effect. His uncanny knack for using color, particularly blue, led to the creation of a specific shade of cobalt named “Parrish blue” in his honor. You can read Parrish himself explaining his painting technique in depth on this informative page.

Here is Jean again in Ecstasy. Parrish created this work shortly before Jean went off to Smith College. It is perhaps an affectionate tribute of farewell from a father to his daughter, now an adult, embarking on her independent life. I find the whole standing on a rocky crag while looking upwards toward the sky, a very apt visual metaphor. Exultant, with arms raised confidently and the world at her feet, she is ready to venture into new discoveries:

Susan Lewin first came to the Parrish family as a 16 year-old au pair for the Parrish children, but her role over the years expanded to include housekeeper, studio assistant, model and possibly Maxfield’s lover. Having modeled for more paintings, murals, and illustrations than any of his other models, Susan Lewin can be considered Maxfield Parrish’s most important and influential muse. That her close companionship with the artist lasted well over 50 years, only solidifies her muse status. This is Susan in Griselda from 1910. A beautiful standing pose:

Then, in 1931, Maxfield Parrish famously announced to the Associated Press, “I’m done with girls on rocks”. Whaaaat??? Done? How could he? And his new genre? Landscapes. Boooooo!!! :lol:

Interior Decorating

This blog used to feature Henri Matisse on a fairly regular basis. As a consistent employer of life models for many decades, the man undisputably deserves the honor. But I think I might be slipping a bit. The great Matisse hasn’t appeared on Museworthy in quite some time, and we must remedy that, asap!

During the 1920s, Matisse was living on the French Riviera along the Côte d’Azur. At the time, the city of Nice was was attempting to develop a film industry, one that would hopefully compete with the prospering cinema scene of Hollywood. Film studios, of course, attract young hopefuls with dreams of fame and performing. Many of those hopefuls are young women. So it was inevitable that Matisse would cross paths with the 20 year-old Henriette Darricarrière, a dancer, actress, and trained violinist who was working as an extra in the film studios of Nice.

The timing couldn’t have been better, as Matisse’s previous model, Antoinette Arnoud, became pregnant in 1921 and could no longer model. So along came Henriette, ready, willing, and able to be her replacement. Matisse was delighted by Henriette’s confident, receptive personality and natural charisma. Most of all, he appreciated her innate ability to pull off the more flamboyant, theatrical settings he was focused on in his art during this period, mainly, the North African “odalisque” which was inspired by his trip to Morocco in 1912. Matisse was concerned that his previous models didn’t project enough authenticity and poise for this persona. Wearing the turbans and veils Matisse provided for them, they came across merely like young women playing “dress up” in oriental costumes, and getting hopelessly lost when placed among colorful walls and fabrics, exotic decor and, some might say, cluttered compositions. But not Henriette. She had the muscular dancer’s body and self-assured presence to make it work.

Years of a highly successful artist/model collaboration between Matisse and Henriette culminated in this painting from 1926, Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background. It was met with mixed reviews, but I like it :-) Henriette sits nude, upright, and confident in front of swirling patterned wallpaper, an oriental rug, and a plant. Gotta have the plant!

Thomas E. McKeller – Male Muse

What is the first thing that flashes through your mind when you hear the name John Singer Sargent? Probably exquisite portraits, for which he is most known. Memorable portrayals of elegant ladies, distinguished men, upper class folk dressed to the nines in their satin and velvet. With Sargent, you don’t generally think of a male nude, let alone a full frontal male nude.

But few artists can resist an inspiring subject, even if it deviates from their usual genre. John Singer Sargent was no exception. We all know that a muse can happen upon an artist at anytime, anywhere. A bar, a street corner, a party. In Sargent’s case, the unexpected encounter occurred in 1916, in an elevator at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.

The striking, muscular young man was Thomas E. McKeller, an African-American bellhop at the hotel. At first sight, Sargent was instantly enthralled by McKeller’s strong physique and facial features. Soon, the young bellhop was posing for the artist, and a large scale oil painting, Thomas E. McKeller Nude Study was produced:

That pose is incredible. Very “active”. First of all, Thomas is kneeling on a cushion with his arms behind him, which presents the torso with a good amount of tension and prominence. Also, his head is tilted upward and to the side, gazing to the heavens. Now let me tell you something; this guy was a great model. That is hard!! That has pain written all over it. In the knees, in the shoulders, in the neck. Thomas rocks :-)

One of many charcoal sketches Sargent did of Thomas McKeller:

Given the mystery surrounding Sargent’s sexual orientation, one could certainly read a lot into these McKeller studies and infer a bit of erotic subtext. Some biographers and art history scholars are convinced that Sargent was gay but repressed. Others believe he was bisexual. Still others regard him as completely asexual. We know that Sargent never married and have very little evidence of any romantic relationship with either a man or a woman. (It is believed that Sargent had an affair with Louise Burkhardt, his model for Lady With The Rose, but it’s not known for sure). Regardless, Sargent was extremely secretive about his proclivities and private life. And, unlike Michelangelo, Sargent created plenty of beautiful female nudes from life, some of them quite sensual. So who knows?

I personally don’t find the McKeller painting erotic. It’s absolutely amazing for sure, but in it I see Sargent capturing Thomas from a purely aesthetic standpoint, not a sexual one. I mean, look at Thomas. There is not an artist on earth, male or female, gay or straight, who would not be inspired by his magnificent form or his soulful, earthy countenance.

The Nude Study of Thomas was never exhibited publicly during Sargent’s lifetime but it is now, proudly on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In an interesting coincidence, the original site of the MFA was located at the old Copley Plaza Hotel, where John Singer Sargent first found himself in an elevator with his handsome muse.

Raphael and the Baker’s Daughter

George Clooney may fancy himself a dashing ladies’ man, but he’s got nothing on the Italian Renaissance master Raphael. Incredibly charming and good-looking by all accounts, Raphael was a perennial bachelor who never married in spite of outside pressure. Even though he was very publicly engaged to one woman, he followed his heart (and other body parts) by romancing and consorting with many other women. Many, MANY other women. The biographer Vasari described Raphael as “a very amorous person, delighting much in women and ever ready to serve them”. Or, in contemporary slang, we could say that Raphael was a “playa” :-)

In 1514, Raphael became engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the niece of Cardinal Medici Bibbiena who was Raphael’s patron. The story goes that the reluctant Raphael had to be persuaded into the engagement, and that he eventually agreed simply to please his benefactor the Cardinal. But Raphael’s loveless engagement to Maria may have been the longest, most futile engagement in history. Raphael stalled and stalled, bedding other women for six long years, until Maria died in 1520, still unmarried. Way to dodge a bullet Raphael! Nice strategy. Keep delaying until the fiancé dies. That’s messed up.

The woman who apparently won the heart and passionate desires of the playboy artist was of far lower social stature than the cardinal’s niece. She was Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter from Siena.

This is Raphael’s famous portrait of Margherita, and possibly his last painting, La Fornarina, which translates into “baker’s daughter” or “bakeress”:

Raphael-Fornarina

Margherita’s seated pose in this painting is quite risqué, especially for the 16th century. Not only is she barely clothed, but notice that one hand is clasping her breast while the other is placed, um, between her legs. Damn, that almost makes ME blush! :lol: Her full, rounded belly and large dark eyes complete Raphael’s perception of his mistress – his lover and muse with whom he was thoroughly besotted. Rumor has it that Raphael and Margherita actually married in secret, but it’s just speculation. Like most romances of centuries past, the true details will never be known.

Raphael died on Good Friday at the young age of 37, and if Vasari is to be believed, the cause was a high fever he contracted after a night of exhausting, wild sex with Margherita. That’s a pretty sensational story, but hey, crazier things have happened. And if it is true, well that’s a hell of a way to go ;-)

For more analysis and speculation of the Raphael/Margherita romance, check out this article from Slate. You can find another entertaining article from the BBC.