I have had my portrait painted many, many times and I have yet to tire of that experience because it is intimate, involved, penetrating, academic, flattering, revealing, and a host of other things. At the heart of all this is my still-incredulous awareness that artists are attempting to capture me – ME. Claudia, a girl from Queens, of Armenian background. Daughter of a musician father and artist mother. College graduate with a degree in American History. Divorced. Former teacher. Warm, funny, sometimes sarcastic, always genuine. Olive-skinned, big brown eyes, thick long hair. Passionate about art modeling, and many other things as well. I’m writing all this to make a point. Even though an art model is posing for a painting or drawing, she is still her own individual. She still has irregular features like everyone does, she still has good days and bad, she still lives among the world, she still has her own ideas, quirks, and proclivities. In other words, she has things to bring to the posing session, and no matter how much quiet and concentration falls over the studio, she is THERE. All of her.
Maybe because Realism is all the rage right now in many art schools (the New York Studio School being an exception), I am somewhat bewildered by the Pre-Raphaelites. They chose fantastic muses to be sure. Some of the very best. (I wrote a post on Elizabeth Siddal a few weeks ago). But through their art, they transformed these fascinating real women into fictionalized, “unreal” roles; Roman goddesses, female figures of Arthurian legend, Shakespearean heroines, etc. I didn’t consider any of this an issue until I started researching the Pre-Raphaelite women, viewing some photographs, and relating my own art modeling experience. And I concluded that these models were woefully shortchanged, their enigmatic souls and all-too-human qualities sanitized into storybook makebelieve.
Jane Morris was born Jane Burden in 1839 in Oxford, England. She was the poor, uneducated daughter of a stableman father and domestic mother. Discovered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was looking for a model to pose as Guinivere, Jane began modeling for him and his cohorts. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, fell in love with her, and Jane embarked on her own informal education to become more worldly and refined, in hopes she would fit in with the sophisticated crowd. She read, she studied music, she learned to speak other languages. She became a skilled embroiderer. It is believed that Jane Morris was the inspiration for the Eliza Doolittle character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”.
Rossetti and Jane took up a torrid affair, and it seems that although Jane was deeply in love with Rossetti, he was unavailable to her in the long run due to his own relationship with Elizabeth Siddal. So Jane went ahead and married William Morris and dutifully bore him two children. It was a practical, sensible life choice not uncommon for Victorian women and consistent with the values of the age.
But here is my gripe. Perhaps I am making too much of this, but then again I am an artist’s model and I take this stuff personally! This is Jane as “Prosperine”, painted by Rossetti and probably the most famous image of her:
Beautiful? Of course. Romantic? Most definitely. A riveting portrait of a conscientious woman with desires, interests, ambitions, and longings? Not exactly.
It’s those Pre-Raphaelites and their pretend world, apparently regarding the real world and it’s human inhabitants as insufficient, deficient in beauty, and material not worthy of their art. To them, the illusory, fictitious land is more appealing, and the real world is lacking in inspiration. Here at Museworthy, we reject that entire premise.
Let me just make a quick distinction here; painting or drawing something in an unrealistic style that is still derived from and inspired by the real sitter is not the same, in my opinion. I have seen many portraits of myself where the artist took license and steered clear of a photographic likeness. In fact, I have written about that here on Museworthy with complete approval. But taking a model and inserting her into a fictionalized identity, and stripping her entirely of her own character and her life scars, purging her of her personality, and quieting her active, thirsty mind, is another thing altogether. It’s like pulling a Madison Avenue airbrush job. It chlorinates an originally mesmerizing subject into something that bears little resemblance to that original.
Perhaps this next image will illustrate my point far better than my words. This a photograph of Jane Morris, taken sometime around 1865. What an unusual looking woman; somber, serious, contemplative, preoccupied with thoughts, curiosities, sadness and who knows what else. Politics could very well have been on her mind, as Jane became an avid supporter of Irish Home Rule and the legislation that would have granted Ireland self-government and autonomy from British control. Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is Jane Morris: