While I’d like to claim credit for thorough, meticulous planning of each and every art post I compose, I must confess that, in some cases, my post subjects have been discovered purely by accident. I’ll be searching for something when an unexpected image loads onto my computer screen. My curiosity is triggered. Oooh! What’s that?! I embark on an investigation, and an unplanned blog post is born.
I came across this stunning portrait by the English classical painter Lord Frederic Leighton that I had never seen before. My first thought was, “Who is the model?”. (As an artist’s model myself, that is usually my first thought). Some quick Googling produced the name Nanna Risi and, as always, there’s a story behind the the woman and the artists who painted her.
In 1858, Leighton was living and painting in Rome, where he met Nanna, a cobbler’s wife with dark hair and a smoldering gaze. She posed professionally as a model and sat for many of the expatriate artists working in Italy at the time. Leighton is generally known to dress up his models and use them to depict mythological or historical figures, consistent with classical tradition. But in the case of Nanna Risi, he painted her as herself. Apart from the showy peacock feathers, this portrait is of Nanna the woman, as Lord Leighton saw her:
Nanna Risi then met and posed for the German artist Anselm Feuerbach. While Leighton’s relationship with her was platonic, Feuerbach fell passionately in love with the Italian beauty. The feeling was mutual, and Nanna left her husband and child to be with him. Feuerbach painted Nanna’s portrait at least 20 times, often posing her with her head downcast, partially in shadow, a hand resting on a shoulder, wearing the jewelry, scarves, and garments he had given her. Strikes me as an effort to state his possession – his “ownership” – of his mistress.
It’s interesting to me that the artist who had a romantic relationship with the sitter painted a colder, more formal representation of her, while the platonic relationship produced a more winsome and engaging one. Feuerbach has Nanna draped in a ton of heavy fabric, contemplating in darkness, solemn and withdrawn. Leighton, in contrast, has her looking over her shoulder, gazing directly at the viewer in crisp light and beauty, wearing a white, airy peasant blouse. Feuerbach renders her as passive and isolated. Leighton depicts her as active and keenly present.
After five years, Nanna left Feuerbach for another man. Seems to have been a pattern with her. That relationship apparently didn’t work out either, and Nanna was left in a lonely destitute condition. Feuerbach later recognized her begging in the streets, poor and bedraggled. He did not stop to help her. I wonder if Lord Leighton would have lent a compassionate helping hand to his muse?