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:

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

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