Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up?

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:

proserpine.jpg

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:

jane-morris-seated3.jpg

7 thoughts on “Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up?

  1. robert bent says:

    Hi-
    Liked this posting.
    So, do you think that Realism is making a comeback? If the art schools are pushing it is it in response to a market demand or what do you think…New York being the center of the art universe, or so I hear!
    Take care.

  2. artmodel says:

    Hi Robert,

    I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your comment. My computer drama has consumed a great deal of my time these past few days.

    As to your questions, I wish I was more privy to inner workings and motivations of the art world in terms of the business aspects, market demand and trends. After all, I just pose for paintings, I don’t sell them! However, from art modeling full time and making friendships with artists and students throughout the city, I have found that there is some disparity between what’s going on at the schools and what’s hanging in the ultra-trendy galleries in areas like Chelsea and SoHo. You certainly don’t need me to tell you that there is a pretentious element to the world of art dealers, gallery owners, and their clientele, especially here in New York. That snooty crowd probably doesn’t have a sincere love of art at all. To them, buying expensive art that they may or may not understand or relate to (or even like!) is just an act of status and conspicuous consumption. Frankly, there are some works in MoMA, in my opinion, that come close to being nothing more than gimmicks, or the self-indulgence of an artist who was lauded by one too many art magazines, and thus has the ego to go with it.

    In the schools, however, there is quite a bit of Realism going on, or an aspiration to Realism. The reason for this could be simply that a lot of the prominent instructors right now happen to be Realists. They are fabulous artists and teachers who garner a great deal of well-deserved respect from their students. But if this were the New York of the 40s, and Pollock and DeKooning were the instructors, then I guess it’s safe to assume that Abstract Expressionism would be all the rage.

    The most important thing I’ve observed after posing for many, many classes and listening to many, many critiques, is that most teachers (with a few exceptions) encourage each individual student to pursue their own style regardless of what’s “popular”. No one is considered an “outsider” because they’re not doing realism. At least they shouldn’t be.

    As far as New York being the “center of the art universe”, as you put it, you are right. We are. But it’s not because we have the National Academy or the Art Students League. There are excellent art schools in many cities. NYC is the center or the art universe because we have . . . the Met.

    Best,
    Claudia

  3. babahr says:

    I agree with all of that except the Met being the reason NYC is the center of American art. The Met is just one element, and it joins with the galleries, the schools, and most important, the appeal of the most vibrant big city in the country, with arguably the most ideas flying about, all stimulating everyone who visits, inspiring all to move here. New York is the center because so many artists want to be here, and once they are here, they feed off each other in a hothouse environment that produces movements that are fully formed and thus ready to be fostered–and then boom, the art industry structure that exists here (ideally) steps in and allows it to thrive, provides the resources, the feedback, the buzz to take it beyond your studio and your group of friends. Plus, we have models like you.

    If you live in a less frenzied town, you can pursue an idea with fewer of the daily pressures one feels in NYC. That is very valuable. But here, those very pressures ensure the art is focused, and then colleagues and competitors alike push you to improve every idea. Both models work, but I’m biased toward the NYC scenario. I’m not sure this makes good sense, but I hope the gist of it is getting through.

  4. artmodel says:

    Bob, your comments absolutely make good sense and the gist gets through for sure! Couldn’t agree with you more. As a native New Yorker, I’m quite aware of that vibrant pulse that exists here and which you describe so perfectly. The perception of New York City as an electrifying, galvanizing place may be a cliche, but it is nevertheless true. Creativity thrives here, new ideas are welcomed and explored, and valuable professional networks and relationships form. You and I both witness these things every day, and it’s always exciting to be around and participate in.

    You explained the “two models” so well, and it helped me understand even better the circumstances artists have to contend with, both good and bad. Indeed, if an artist was so inclined, he/she could escape to the mountains with easel and paints in tow, and create landscapes in peace, with virtually no pressure, distractions, or competition. On the other hand, that same artist experiences no support or feedback, lacks other useful resources, and maybe risks falling into a stagnant creative state of some kind. If I were an artist, I would choose the New York option, without a doubt. I share your “bias”. I’d require, as you put it so well, that “hothouse environment” to stay motivated, challenged, and inspired.

    I do worry sometimes that there are artists who maybe don’t have the temperament to handle some aspects of New York’s art scene; the competitiveness, the pretentiousness in some circles (you know the ones I mean), and the frustration and disappointment that comes with rejection from juried shows, art club memberships, grant applications, etc. I’ve seen a few of my artist friends go through all that, and I empathize with them every time. I just fear they will become so discouraged that they disengage from everything and, worst of all, give up their art. Probably, my fears are unfounded though. One of the many inspiring things I’ve learned in my career is that if one has a passion to create art, then they will create art. Because they can’t stop. They won’t stop. If there’s bruising and knockdowns in the process, so be it. That’s what it means to have a passion for something. Knowing this (and feeling it myself toward my modeling) reassures me that, even if some hearts get broken, high hopes are temporarily dashed, or success is elusive, ART will still be created. It will always endure, especially here in our beloved NYC.

    Thanks ever so much for your comment, Bob. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and discussing it. So glad you’re checking in with Museworthy.

    Best,
    Claudia

  5. jeffrey says:

    I was interested in your opinion that the point of a painting is not that the painter should be allowed to express him/herself by portraying whatever fantasy occurs to him or her, but that painting should somehow serve the desires of the model to be represented and immortalized in a way that is pleasing and acceptable to her (or him). The photo that you reproduce of Jane Burden Morris is a famous one by John Robert Parsons, as I’m sure you know, but what you may not be aware of is that Parsons took lots of photos of Jane Morris, usually in conjunction with Dante Rossetti. It is Rossetti who arranged and dictated the poses because he intended the photos to be used as reference for his paintings. In other words, the photo does not represent the “real” Jane Morris any more than the paintings do, nor should they.

  6. artmodel says:

    Hi Jeffrey,

    I appreciate your comments, although I must admit I can’t find the part in my original post where I ever stated that the “point” of a painting was to “serve the desires of the model” or that it should be “pleasing or acceptable to her/him”. Not sure where you got that from exactly.

    What I did say was that if an artist chooses to work from a model it’s not unreasonable to expect that at least some of the essence, energy, and personality of the model be evident in the final work. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Why work from “life” at all then? As much as some of the arrogant artists would like to think, models are NOT props. We are human beings.

    Now I have certainly seen portraits of myself that were not necessarily “pleasing” to me. But I recognized that the artist made a heroic attempt to “get” me onto the canvas, and did so in their own style and with their own vision. And that’s what matters. (I wrote so in the post, second to last paragraph)

    I know that the photograph of Jane was a reference picture for later work. If I had found a more candid photograph of her I would have posted it in a heartbeat, believe me. But still, in that photo, to me there is a distinct human being there in a way that doesn’t remotely exist in “Prosperine” which, in my opinion, looks like wallpaper or a children’s book illustration. In the photo you can see her FACE, with a demeanor and a countenance and a slightly furrowed brow. Much different than the brain-dead zombie in the painting. If you don’t consider the photo comparatively more “real” than we obviously disagree on that. I never indicated in my post that an artist should not express him/herself (nor have I ever on this blog). I did, though, convey my disappointment that they would choose wonderful models and strip them of everything that makes them unique individuals, which is what we all are. Artists are not the only ones with personalities, you know. Nor are they the only ones with something to “express”.

    Thanks for your comments, and I hope you keep reading Museworthy. I also hope you keep in mind that I am an art model, not an artist, therefore my posts and commentary will always originate from my viewpoint and experience as a model. There is a multitude of blogs out there that are authored by artists, and which express the artist’s perspective. Too many to count, really. It’s about time that an art MODEL has one! And that’s what Museworthy is. A place where models, both past and present, can have their say.

    Best,
    Claudia

  7. It’s very interesting to read an account from the model’s point of view and sadly quite rare I would say. Though recently I read a fascinating biography of Suzanne Valadon who started as an artist’s model, became mistress of several artists and went on to break Eric Satie’s heart. But then she too became a painter of talent though she was overshadowed by the success of her alcoholic son Maurice Utrillo. But I think you are unnecessarily harsh on poor Rossetti!
    He was passionate about Jane Morris and she about him although it would appear he was impotent owing to a physical handicap. Rosetti like most artists used his models to realise his vision, in that sense a model is like an actress and like an actress the bravura of the model helps realise that vision. Rossetti was Pygmalion, but In Ovid’s fable Pygmalion’s model is merely the object of his desire, and despite fathering his children, remains anonymous. Jane Morris is by no means anonymous, she was elevated by the Pre-Raphaelites to a station way beyond her humble origins in an Oxford slum. Jane was an interesting alchemy of beauty, intelligence and whatever it takes to become a muse to some of the greatest artists of her age – I think all that comes across in Proserpina, his Proserpina would not have been the same without Jane.
    Keep up the good work, I enjoy your blog very much.

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