Audrey Munson – Woman in Stone

It’s time for a reality check. Although I am both a born and bred New Yorker and a busy, professional artist’s model all around town, I’d better disabuse myself of any foolish notion that I am in any way the quintessential art model of this city. Because I most certainly am not. Not by a longshot. Sure I have hung on the walls of galleries, studios, and arts clubs throughout the city. But nowhere do I appear in the historic Beaux-Arts architecture of New York. My image and figure are not immortalized atop the 40 story Municipal Building. Nor are they sculpted into the arch of the Manhattan Bridge. Neither are they in the Metropolitan Museum, outside the Customs House in Bowling Green, in the lobby of the Hotel Astor, atop the Pulitzer fountain at the former Plaza Hotel, on the Mercury dime, or outside the New York Public Library. Furthermore, I have never been named “Queen of the Artist’s Studios” or “Miss Manhattan”. Those honors belong to one model, and one model alone: Audrey Munson. SHE was New York City’s artist’s model.

If any art model tries to win a “battle of credentials” with Audrey Munson, she will lose big time, as Audrey beats all of us hands down. One of my readers, Robert, a sculptor and fellow blogger over at Dorset Sculpture, commented here recently about art models being “immortalized”. He’s right. And the great Audrey Munson embodies that idea to an incomparable degree. We are talking about a woman whose gaze stares down at this city of millions from every corner – north and south, east and west, high above, carved in granite and marble, commemorating and memorializing events both solemn and celebratory. In art and architecture, in gildings and arches and almost every public square, Audrey Munson owns this city.

Audrey Marie Munson was born in 1891, in a small town in upstate New York called Mexico, near Rochester. After her parents divorced, Audrey moved to the city with her mother where she was discovered by a photographer. He asked her to pose at the young age of fifteen. Pose nude, that is. The photographer then introduced Audrey to the sculptor Isador Konti and he too asked her to pose. Soon the young girl from upstate New York was the most popular, in-demand artist’s model in the city.

Audrey Munson, 1922:

It seems that every prominent sculptor in New York was clamoring to work with her, and Audrey Munson achieved a significant level of celebrity. She even wrote a newspaper column for a time. In 1915, American sculptor Alexander Calder selected Audrey as the featured model for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco. Munson posed for an astonishing 3/4 of all the sculpture at that event.

Here is Audrey as The Star Maiden, one of Calder’s most famous works of her:

What’s most impressive is Audrey Munson’s role as the symbolic figure of New York City’s civic glory, it’s splendid grandeur as a vast, powerful, burgeoning metropolis. Here she is as the model for Civic Fame, the statue that sits atop the Municipal Building on Centre Street. Constructed of copper sheets over a steel frame, Audrey’s flowing figure holds a five-pointed crown in one hand to symbolize the five boroughs of New York. In the other hand she holds a shield and a laurel branch. This is the second largest statue in the city. What’s the first? Oh just a little thing called The Statue of Liberty:

This is Audrey in the Fireman’s Memorial at 100th Street and Riverside Drive. It was created of pink marble by Italian stone carver Attilio Piccirilli in 1914. I have seen this sculpture in person and it’s really beautiful:

The Melvin Memorial by Daniel Chester French, honors soldiers who died in the Civil War. It’s on view at the Metropolitan Museum:

Here is Audrey in Memory, the memorial sculpture in Straus Park at 107th Street and Broadway. It honors Ida and Isador Straus who died on the Titanic in 1912. Augustus Lukeman was the sculptor:

The Pomona Statue, by Karl Bitter, atop the Pulitzer Fountain in Grand Army Plaza, 59th Street and Fifth Avenue:

Audrey Munson went to Hollywood and tried her hand at silent films. She was the first woman to ever appear nude in a film. Her role was, appropriately, that of an artist’s model. Talk about typecasting! The name of the film was Inspiration, and that is just too perfect for me, my blog, and for art models everywhere! Inspiration indeed. Here is a still from that film:

However, Audrey’s career in films fizzled out quickly. She returned to the east coast and found that the unfair, fickle nature of fame had already “retired” her. The Beaux-Arts construction boom was over. And Audrey was left behind, forgotten so fast it was almost as if she never existed. She and her mother lived in a NYC boarding house, where Audrey took up an affair with their married landlord, Dr. Walter Wilkins. Wilkins murdered his wife to free himself for Audrey. Although Audrey and her mother had already left town and had nothing to do with the murder whatsoever, the police still tracked her down to question her. She was cleared, of course, but was forever stigmatized, the mere association of her name with the scandalous events ruined her completely. Wilkins was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, but he hung himself in his prison cell before the sentence was carried out.

Back upstate in Mexico, Audrey was alienated and alone. She sold kitchen utensils door-to-door. It is speculated that the conservative-minded small town didn’t approve of the local girl who had “posed nude”. Whispers, snickers, and self-righteous moral judgments might have been too much for Audrey to handle. Feeling like an outcast, she attempted suicide, but failed. She was subsequently confined to a psychiatric facility and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1996, Audrey Munson died in that institution. She was 104 years old.

In the cruelest of ironies, Audrey Munson, the great sculptor’s model and muse, is buried in an unmarked grave in upstate New York. Yes, you read that correctly. An unmarked gravestone. Since the crime of that oversight bothers me a great deal, I will close this post with Audrey’s own words. I want her to have the last word, because her sensitive, eloquent statement expresses the purpose and heart of this blog far better than any of my own in all my posts. Her words struck me in a profound way, as if a prophesy from my predecessor. They are the perfect articulation of why I conceived Museworthy in the first place; to honor people like Audrey Munson, and the hard work and inspiration they provided to artists everywhere, lest they be forgotten. She wrote this in one of her newspaper columns:

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’”

Blog site devoted to Audrey Munson
New York Times article “The Girl Beneath the Gilding”

27 thoughts on “Audrey Munson – Woman in Stone

  1. dougrogers says:

    That was a fascinating story. Thank you.

  2. artmodel says:

    You are very welcome, Doug. Glad you enjoyed it.
    Nice to hear from you always 🙂

    Claudia

  3. Jeff says:

    Claudia – yet again, another wonderful, thought-provoking post. I’m so glad I stumbled upon your blog.

    While I certainly don’t ask myself in such eloquent terms, I do ask myself questions such as this. If you want to know whether I am curious about the various models who are immortalized in bronze and stone, well… I think if you know me, you know the answer to that is: “Of course”. I see all models, whether they have posed in front of me, or for some artist of greater ability, either alive or dead, now, or in the past, as people, and people fascinate me.

    What point is there to sculpture, if we don’t see these inanimate stone and bronze objects as “people”? If they are less than “people”, then we, as sculptors have failed, but it would not be fair to assume any failure on the part of the model. Unfortunately, a model can give his or her all, and still the artist can fail to capture anything that makes the model interesting or unique, and sometimes we can even fail to capture anything that makes her or him human.

    Of course, don’t hold all of our failures against us either, as it takes a long time to learn to capture even a small part of a living soul in clay or wax, bronze or stone. I try, but am rarely happy with the results, though I do feel good when I see improvement, no matter how small.

    The Fireman’s Memorial is a really wonderful piece, and not just because it is carved from pink marble. It is very sad to me, both for what it represents, and for the fact that you couldn’t make it today, no matter how talented or earnest you were. Middle America simply won’t accept nudes in this context any longer, most especially those that feature children, regardless of how valid, how moving, or how beautiful. I cannot express how sad that makes me. I honestly wonder if we will ever have another Neapolitan Fisher Girl or Boy. There are so many amazing sculptures throughout history that would not be accepted if created today.

    Anyway, I got off on a tangent there, but though some artists may disagree, I hope and believe that I speak for more than just myself when I say that I value the contributions of models far more than I have words to express. I would have loved to have been able to sculpt Ms. Munson, and I honestly hold out a small hope that someday I’ll be able to sculpt you, Claudia. I can guarantee you that that would be an experience that I would never forget and would never undervalue.

    If I got the chance, and managed to capture even a small part of who you are, I would feel inordinately proud: you are a complex and wonderful person, which makes you, of course, the best kind of model. The best art models are complex in a way that photography alone can’t capture and I just hope I’m up to the opportunity if it ever presents itself.

  4. artmodel says:

    Jeff,

    I barely know how to begin my response to your extraordinary comments. I read them several times, and took in more and more with each reading. This kind of experience is what makes blogging such a rewarding endeavor – the interaction and sharing and exchanging of thoughts with other people.

    Let me start by saying that I, too, love the Fireman’s Memorial. I’m probably not expressing this well, but it’s one of those stone sculptures that looks “soft”. Do you know what I mean? I think Audrey appears most feminine and supple in that piece. Very womanly. Gentle and loving. Perhaps because of the pink marble? Whatever the reason, it’s really exquisite. It draws the viewer in.

    Jeff, I have no doubt whatsoever that you recognize, value, and appreciate the work performed by artist’s models, and that you are deeply aware of their humanity and individuality. I know this from your own blog, your comments here, and just the fact that you read Museworthy. You are deeply invested in your art and all aspects of its creation. That’s so apparent.

    I think you sculptors take on an enormous challenge in attempting to capture a model’s humanity in clay or stone or metal. I have nothing but admiration for sculptors. In a million years, I couldn’t do such a thing! Sculpting is, to me, a skill that requires huge commitment, passion, vigor, and dedication. And I think that sculptors perhaps have a more acute brand of awareness when it comes to the model. Painters, sometimes, can be disengaged from the subject. Not always, of course. But I have seen it on quite a few occasions.

    But maybe it’s because of the wholeness of the form – the weight, the volume, the mass, the three-dimensional entirety- that demands sculptors to SEE their subjects with such depth and accuracy? You can surely answer that better than I. What I do know from experience, is how sculptors turn us models around on that pedestal countless times. I like it! Turn, turn, turn. Taking in all of us. Adding clay in some spots, slicing clay off in other spots. Creating the convex, then the concave. Looking again. Turning. Molding more, pushing in thumbs or entire hands, forming a browbone or eye socket or rectus abdominus or clavicle. I’ve watched it with tremendous fascination. Really, Jeff, I don’t know how you guys do it.

    So as far as holding sculptors’ “failings” against them, not a chance! Not from me. The whole undertaking is so impressive in itself, I couldn’t imagine taking an issue with a sculpture in that regard. But that’s just me.

    I’ve never been sculpted in stone, by the way. Maybe someday. That would be great!

    However I think, from your comments, you were referring to much more than just physical characteristics. You were talking about the models the people. After reviewing my post, I concluded that the men who sculpted Audrey Munson did an outstanding job of capturing her humanity, at least from what we can tell. I wish we knew more about Audrey’s personality. Believe me I searched my brains out. It’s one of the reasons I included the photographic images of Audrey, so readers could compare. She is CLEARLY in those sculptures. Like you said, a photograph doesn’t quite cut it, but we can definitely perceive something of Audrey the person from those pictures. Not nearly enough, but still something.

    My heart was breaking as I put together this post. It was breaking because I see in all those works of art, Audrey Munson’s incredible hard work- her strength, her diligence, her dedication. And then the thought of her being discarded so easily, ending up destitute, wasting away alone in that mental hospital, it’s just so tragic. It angers me a little too.

    Jeff, I am deeply touched by your compliments toward me. i became quite emotional about them, to tell you the truth. Perhaps you could sculpt me one day. It’s not impossible by any means. I would be honored. Like you said, opportunities can arise, and if they do they should be seized. Hold onto that “small hope”.

    Thanks from the bottom of my heart, for your thoughtful, generous comments. I hope you continue your contributions to this blog, Jeff, as they have made Museworthy a better place. And I plan to feature much more sculpture and sculpture models in the future.

    Best,
    Claudia

  5. I commend you, not just for ending on a high note but for such a readable post. Her story, like so many better known tragedies in the art world, is heart rending. I am surprised it has not been picked up by Hollywood! The Fireman’s’ Memorial is indeed a great work. I had not seen it before. As Jeff said, things have changed and there are new taboos which perhaps will fade away as did their processors.

    One job that Artists have done has been to lead the way in ideas, fashion and ultimately taste.

    One model we had some years ago now was a chatter box, what she lacked in ‘ideal form’ she replace with a bubbly and delightful personality. It was interesting how she also criticised our work especially when anyone dared to improve the odd line here or there! She would point out that the female artists amongst us were far more truthful and who out numbered the men by five to two in our class! I once met her in the street sometime later and in the same unstoppable way she talked very loudly and frankly about our encounters. I lost some of my shyness since that episode!

    Thank you both for a delightful post and comments

  6. It is interesting how words get changed by spell checking word processors. The last word in the first paragraph above should be predecessors!

  7. artmodel says:

    Robert,

    You’re welcome, and thanks to you too for your comments!

    That’s a funny story about the outspoken art model you once worked with. I’ve always believed that a model’s personality does – or should – have a significant impact on both hers and the artists’ work. The woman you described sure sounds like a loquacious one! I’ve known a few like that. I myself am a talkative one too, always friendly and approachable. But I know boundaries, even the fuzzy ones of an art class setting. So I try not to overdo it, and always allow people their space. I appreciate my space too.

    You’re right that Audrey Munson’s story would be great material for a movie, provided they show her the respect she deserves. As I commented to Jeff, I wish there was more information on her. But there is, believe it or not, a small cult following for Audrey. I hope the next time New Yorkers pass by all those great statues and sculptures, they will remember that a real woman posed for them, and that her name was Audrey Munson.

    Claudia

  8. Chris Miller says:

    What a wonderful post!

    I had just been reading about Audrey on Wikipedia last week — but your story is so much better — since it’s got all the photos.

    By the way — here’s a post about a famous Chicago model — c. 1915 :

    http://thisoldpalette.blogspot.com/2008/06/provocative-miss-rains.html

    and her photo also appears midway through here:

    http://thisoldpalette.blogspot.com/2008/06/accomplishments-of-1915.html

  9. artmodel says:

    Chris,

    So glad you liked this post. It’s special to me, too, for obvious reasons. I feel a bond with Audrey.

    Thanks for the links about Miss Rains. I had not heard of her or her story. It’s nice to see that you’re interested in the models. I have many previous posts about them and many many more to come. Great biographies with great art. Hope you check them out!

    Claudia

  10. Jeff says:

    Claudia:

    Sorry for the delay in responding – I was traveling last week, and not really able to get online much.

    I believe the Fireman’s Memorial would be a wonderful piece of sculpture regardless of what it was carved from, but the fact that it has softened over the years from exposure has actually helped it – has softened the crisp art-decoish lines. I don’t do stone work yet (unforgiving – it scares me), but most marbles are actually fairly soft stone, which is why it is so prized by stone carvers, but this piece appears to be soft even for marble.

    Honestly, before your post, I had always assumed the piece had been done in Soapstone. Unfortunately “pink marble” isn’t an actual type of stone – there are a few types of marble that can be found in pink or with pink veins, but unfortunately there are also several non-marble stones that are commonly referred to as “marble” but aren’t really. “Tenessee marble”, for example, (which often is pink), is actually a type of Limestone. I don’t know enough to even take a guess at what this piece is carved out of, but it suits the piece, whatever it is.

    The expression on the woman with the child looks, at first, vacant, almost expressionless, but the more you look at it, the more you realize (if you’ve ever had to be with somebody who’s suffered a recent loss), that it is exactly the right expression – loss, confusion, uncertainty, a valiant attempt to be strong. The fireman’s helmet in her lap is the perfect cue to bring the piece together. It accomplishes what it means to accomplish very well, without the sort of visual overstatement that is common in memorial sculpture.

    I am glad you like my comments. I’ll be completely honest with you, though; I’m much better at expressing myself sitting at a computer than I am in person. When a model does a great job, I sometimes feel too awkward to actually let them know, especially if it’s a group session and the first time I’ve worked from the model. I’ve gotten better over the years as I’ve gotten more comfortable (and possibly more mature), but it’s still not something that comes easy for me – I’m an introvert. So, I guarantee you that many of the artists you’ve posed for think the world of you and very much appreciate your efforts, even if they don’t say it at the time.

    For example – a few weeks ago at the open studio I attend on Sunday nights, we had a new model, a young woman, probably no more than twenty years old. Well, just like in any field, you don’t necessarily expect a new person, especially a young, inexperienced one, to do that good of a job, but she was just phenomenal. She used an interesting variety of poses, was aware of the artists, she made sure that she was changing facing often enough that everybody got to draw front, back, and side, and she started the night with easier to draw poses, and ended with more difficult poses. As the session ended, I honestly meant to tell her how great she had done, once she had finished dressing, but it sort of stuck in my throat… She was attractive and young (not that much older than my oldest daughter, actually), and I was honestly concerned it would look like I was hitting on her, so I just managed a “thanks”, packed up and headed out. Silly, perhaps, in hindsight, but emotions and feelings are not always rational, and I really didn’t want to come across as that creepy guy who makes people uncomfortable.

    Anyway, I very much enjoy your blog, and would love the opportunity to meet you in person someday. There are too few interesting people in the world (one advantage of living in a city like you do is that there are far more of them 🙂 ). I do travel to the city once in a rare while (I try to get into the Compleat Sculptor at least once a year, and sometimes travel in on business or pleasure). The next time I do, perhaps I’ll try to attend one of your open drawing sessions if I can.

    Take care,
    Jeff

  11. Paul says:

    I had never heard of this interesting woman before reading your blog. It is fascinating how archaic sensibilities regarding nudity that made the public turn against her. She was a woman before her time and should be immortalized on the silver screen as mentioned above.
    Thanks, guy!

  12. artmodel says:

    Paul,

    Glad you enjoyed reading about – and discovering- Audrey Munson. She deserves a lot more recognition than my little blog post. I hope I did her justice. Definitely a woman before her time, like you said.

    Oh by the way, I’m not a “guy”. I’m a girl 😉

    Thanks for your comment.

    Claudia

  13. Hal Weiner says:

    I was researching Audrey Munson because we are interested in her, and our tours
    on top of the bus pass the Civic Fame statue at the Municipal Bldg. I had no idea she was on the Fireman’s memorial which is at the end of my street, 100th St.

    Thank you for your great blog. I happened to click on your most recent one
    and was so fascinated by the Romeo and Juliet clip I posted it to my Facebook page.

    Thanks again, Claudia.

    Hal

  14. artmodel says:

    Hal,

    A big Museworthy welcome to you! Not only am I happy you found this blog but I’m really happy you found it searching for Audrey. One my favorite art model luminaries. And you get to see the Fireman’s Memorial every day!

    Thank you for your praise for the blog. Im glad you enjoyed the Romeo and Juliet clip. An outstanding movie you should see if you haven’t already. Powerful and passionate.

    Keep visiting Museworthy. Good to have you here.
    Thanks Hal.

    Claudia

  15. Jill says:

    My father told a story of a distant cousin that paraded the streets nakid, with only an umbrella in her hand as if it were a cane or possibly to keep others at arms reach. He made be curious to find these family secrets that my grandmother would not allow a word spoken of this women. (A cousin of hers, a family disgrace.) I have found many writings of Audrey and have only veiwed pictures of statues in her likeness. I am saddened to read she has no stone to mark her grave. Learning what little bit I know of Audrey helps me to understand a piece of my family. A very special lady, indeed.

  16. artmodel says:

    Jill,

    Thank you so much for your comments. This is amazing! So Audrey Munson was your grandmother’s cousin? Wow, I’m blown away.

    Through your personal recollections you have confirmed, sadly, that she was treated like a shameful family outcast. It’s a terrible thing because she had a truly impressive modeling career. Audrey is probably the most unsung and overlooked art model in history.

    I was troubled to read about how she was treated, but tried to rationalize it by considering the conservative cultural attitudes of the day. (it didn’t prevent me from feeling very sad, though). We’ve certainly come a long way in social mores, and I wonder how things would have played out for Audrey if she were alive today, in a more liberal-minded era with regard to nudity.

    If it’s any comfort, this post on Audrey Munson is one of the most visited Museworthy posts of all I’ve written. It’s attracted a great deal of traffic, and has prompted tremendous feedback. So I can tell you unequivocally that there is a great deal of interest in her, from artists, sculptors, historians, women, etc. I’ve felt some degree of satisfaction from that.

    Jill, thank you again for contributing your comments. You should be proud to have Audrey Munson in your family heritage in spite of everything else. She was, like you said, “a very special lady”. She was the “American Venus”.

    Best,
    Claudia

  17. kirsty says:

    I recently found out that I am related toAudrey Munson and I am trying to trace back the family connections. does anyone have any family tree related to her?

    • artmodel says:

      Kirsty,

      I wish I could help. I’ve received several emails/inquiries from people trying to trace her lineage.

      You might want to contact this organization:

      Audrey Munson Memorial Fund
      Mexico Historical Society
      c/o E. Marsden, treasurer
      P.O. Box 331
      Mexico, NY 13114

      Or go on http://www.ancestry.com/. That might be a good place to start.

      Congratulations, by the way, on discovering your connection to the great Audrey Munson. She’s a legendary person to have in your family tree, one of the greatest artist’s models of all time.

      Best of luck in your search.

      Claudia

  18. Jonna Espey says:

    I just moved into an apartment on 100th and Riverside and have become fascinated with the woman who graces the Fireman’s monument. Audrey Munson continues to move people, with her ample grace and pensive face. Thank you for helping to bring her to light, as a muse and a person.

    • artmodel says:

      Jonna,

      That’s incredible! My Aunt Iris lived on 100th and Riverside for many years! She loved it up there, as I’m sure you will.

      You are lucky to be so close to the Fireman’s Memorial, one of Audrey’s best modeling displays I feel. Beautiful sculpture.

      Thank you so much for your comments, and your appreciation for Audrey Munson. You said it well with “ample grace and pensive face”. A great muse and a great New York City treasure.

      Claudia

  19. Cynthia Smith says:

    I may be able to assist with Audry’s lineage. She was my great half aunt (her father was also my grandfather’s father). My mother has the complete publish Munson record. It would be interesting to find some distant cousins

  20. Diana says:

    One of our relatives.

    • artmodel says:

      Diana, wow that’s great! Thanks for commenting!

      Claudia

      • Diana says:

        Is it possible for interested people to purchase a headstone for Audrey’s grave?

      • Diana says:

        We are related on the Munson side of the family. Our daughter, by sheer coincidence is named Audrey! We are quite proud of her and my daughter is really excited and proud of her.

        • artmodel says:

          Diana,

          A wonderful coincidence! You should be proud. As to the headstone, I’d be interested in something like that as well. I haven’t checked around lately for Audrey-related news, but if I find out anything I will let you know … and could you do the same? I’d appreciate it!

          Thanks for sharing your family history!

          Claudia

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