Dream Makers

In an Artist’s Studio – Christina Rossetti

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

Seated Model in the Artist’s Studio, by Paul-Gustave Fischer:

Cantrix

Portrait commissions may have allowed John Singer Sargent to make a name for himself, but we know that he eventually grew tired of that work despite being in great demand as a portraitist for upper crust aristocrats. If you do a Google Image Search of John Singer Sargent you’re bombarded with painting after painting of affluent men and women posing stiffly in their elegant clothes, gazing straight at the viewer, their airs of superiority wafting off the canvases.

Recently I came across a Sargent portrait that stood out from the others and I suspected that it wasn’t a commissioned work. After a few minutes of research I discovered that it was, in fact, not a commission. Sargent created it purely from the inspiration he felt from the subject, not because he was contracted to do so. She was Mabel Batten, born Mabel Veronica Hatch in Great Britain in 1856. Like most of Sargent’s circle, Mabel was a member of the high society class but she was also an accomplished mezzo-soprano, composer, trained musician and patroness of the arts. Sargent painted this portrait depicting her in the euphoric throes of singing, with eyes closed, mouth open, and those trademark Sargent painterly brushstrokes on the dress. Mabel is in a full blown musical trance here:

And no that’s not some sloppy cropping on my part. Sargent deliberately cut off the arms in an ingenious composition choice which creates greater intimacy and intensity. Also, I like the gesture of her left hand on her hip. Nice touch.

This Music Monday post continues with more female songstress exultation. The word ‘cantrix’, by the way, means a female singer, as my Latin language obsession pokes through from time to time. I posted back in December about my niece Olivia’s original music and I’m thrilled to report that she continues to kick ass 🙂 Her latest single is Sapphire and I would be honored if my readers had a listen to this outstanding song. Really, it’s outstanding! This girl is on a roll. Ms Mabel would love this, and you will too. Here’s Olivia Paris:

Countenances

Helllooooooooooo friends!! How is everyone? 2017 is barely two weeks old and I’ve already had my bout with the flu! Ugh. I was in bed for a few days feeling pretty lousy, but I’m recovered now (mostly) and ready to return to work. First booking on my schedule is the two week Drawing Marathon at the New York Studio School again. I modeled for it at the start of the fall 2016 semester – posted here – and am honored to have been asked back.

Also, an update about the “Portraits and Pets” Museworthy Art Show. I’ve decided that it will happen in the spring – either late March or early April. So anyone who has not yet submitted something and would like to, you still have plenty of time! I encourage you to do so. Skill level is totally unimportant. All that matters is sharing, expression, and participation 🙂

Speaking of portraits, I’ve been looking at them a lot lately. More than nudes even. Something about the varied countenances and bearings of individuals, and how artists manage to capture those distinct airs through portraiture, is fascinating to me. Two in particular made an impression on me recently and I decided to share on the blog. Interestingly, both of them were painted by artists who are well-known mostly for their landscapes. The two men were not contemporaries (born 60 years apart), hailed from different parts of Europe and were raised in different socio-economic backgrounds. One was reared in a comfortable, middle class Parisian lifestyle, the other in a poverty-stricken, rootless existence in northern Italy.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the Parisian, painted this work, The Greek Girl, in 1870. The girl is not Greek at all. She is Emma Dobigny, a popular French artist’s model at the time and a particular favorite of Edgar Degas. The warm, honeyed tones and harmonious palette work extremely well, as does the composition. She is dainty and winsome. We look at her, but her gaze and attention are directed elsewhere. I also see the vertical shape of her long jacket contrasting with the roundness of her cherubic face.

corot-greekgirl

The next portrait is by the the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini who, as a young boy, was homeless for a time, living in the streets of Milan and placed in a reform school. I’ve always found him to be a very interesting artist. The bulk of Segantini’s work are scenes of Alpine pastoral life – sheep herders and peasant folk in the Swiss mountains. This is his 1881 portrait of Leopoldina Grubicy who I’m assuming was probably the wife of Vittore Grubicy, an art gallery owner, painter, friend and supporter of Segantini. Again, marvelous shapes. A mature woman. Luminosity on the skin, the fluffy white collar, and the gold hair clip are details which draw the eye.

segantini-portraitleopoldina

Veronica of Venice

Throughout junior high and high school, I was quite the vocabulary geek. When I wasn’t cutting chemistry class and doodling “I ❤ Paul” in my spiral notebook, I was compiling word lists on my own time for my own personal study. I used to scribble stars next to the ones I had trouble remembering. But once in a while I’d gloss over a word I encountered and just presumed to know what it meant by its written context; something like “18th century courtesans enjoyed lives of social freedom and financial stability”. So a courtesan is just a high class society woman, right? Not exactly.

When I eventually looked up the word “courtesan” I was a little taken aback by its straightforward definition: “a woman who has sex with rich or important men in exchange for money”. So in other words, a prostitute. Wait, what? I was confused. Courtesans were written about in a way that conveyed glamour and high repute. Keep in mind that I grew up in New York City – pre-Guiliani New York City that is – and my understanding of prostitutes was the short-skirted women with bad skin who loitered on street corners on the west side, soliciting men with “you lookin’ for a date?” and leaning into open car windows.

Naturally, I came to learn that some words are history-specific, and that New York City circa 1982 was a world apart from Venice circa 1570. (Or was it? Hmm…) No one uses the word “courtesan” in ordinary conversation anymore, but it came back to me recently when I started to research this extraordinary portrait by either Jacopo Tintoretto or one of his protégés:

Tintoretto-VeronicaFranco

The woman in this painting, with red hair and peek-a-boo nipple, is Veronica Franco, one of the most celebrated and respected courtesans in Venice during the 16th century, a time when that city was a thriving, cosmopolitan commercial and cultural center. Franco was a member of the cortigiane oneste class of courtesans: educated, sophisticated women who provided companionship, sexual or otherwise, to wealthy men who served as benefactors. These courtesans hobnobbed with the elite and often had careers of their own in fields like the arts, even business. Interestingly, they enjoyed social and professional freedoms that were not as easily available to traditional wives.

Veronica Franco was born 1546 into a family of native Venetians – a class of people who were referred to as cittadini originari or “original citizens”. This stratum of society was bestowed with certain rights and privileges and only ranked below the nobility in terms of social standing. Franco’s mother was a courtesan herself and provided all her children, Veronica and her three brothers, with private tutors and a well-rounded education. After a failed marriage to a physician at an early age, Veronica Franco embarked on her career as a courtesan and, more impressively, a published poet and literary editor.

From the collection of Museo del Prado  this is another portrait believed to be of Veronica Franco, this time by Jacopo Tintoretto’s son, Domenico. It’s appropriately titled Lady Baring her Breast. Veronica liked showing those off it seems. And the pearl necklace is a nice touch 🙂

Tintoretto-VFranco

Franco collaborated with her male counterparts to compile poetry anthologies. She forged an especially close relationship with Domenico Venier, poet and head of a prominent literary academy in Venice. “Terze Rime”, Veronica Franco’s volume of poetry, was published in 1575. Her voice is frank, insightful, passionate, often defiant. In this excerpt of her verse, Franco challenges the misbehaving men of her day with the spirit of a feisty early feminist:

Look with the eyes of your good sense
and see for yourself how unworthy of you
it is to insult and injure women.
Unfortunate sex, always led about
by cruel fortune, because you are always
subjected and without freedom!
But this has certainly been no fault of ours,
because, if we are not as strong as men,
like men we have a mind and intellect.
And virtue does not lie in bodily strength
but in the vigor of the soul and mind,
through which all things come to be known;
and I am certain that in this respect
women lack nothing, but, rather, have given
more than one sign of being greater than men.
But if you think us inferior to you,
perhaps it’s because in modesty and wisdom
we are more adept and better than you.
And do you want to know what the truth is?
That the wisest person should be the most patient
squares with reason and with what is right;
insolence is the mark of the madman,
but the stone that the wise man draws from the well
was thrown in by a foolish, imprudent man…….

Not long after the the publication of Franco’s poetry, Venice was hit with a devastating outbreak of the plague. A port city with a mercantile economy, Venice was particularly vulnerable due to infected rats and other disease-carrying vermin entering the city via trade ships. Veronica Franco, like thousands of others, fled Venice to escape the Black Death. The city was ravaged, and its strict caste system now meant nothing as rich and poor alike, nobleman and laborer, succumbed equally under the outbreak. Epidemic disease doesn’t care who you are or who your parents were.

The Grand Canal, Venice, by Franz Richard Unterberger:

Unterberger-the-grand-canal-venice

When Franco returned to Venice, her home and possessions had been looted, and her life entered a second chapter marked by poverty and other difficulties. In 1580 she was brought up on bogus charges of witchcraft. An inquisition was held and she was exonerated. But the damage done to her reputation was irreparable. Then in 1582, her dear and loyal friend Domenico Venier died which left Veronica with no significant ally in Venetian social circles.

Franco was a prolific letter-writer, and her surviving correspondence provides compelling insight into her values and attitudes. In one letter, she strongly discourages an advice-seeking mother from allowing her daughter to become a courtesan. Using blunt language, Franco warns the woman that the life of a courtesan is not glamorous but tainted with degradation and stigma, and that she, as the girl’s mother, should be more protective of her daughter’s welfare and well-being. Franco urged her not to “slaughter in one stroke [her] soul and [her] reputation, along with [her] daughter’s”. So the life of a “courtesan” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And my vocabulary confusion over that word wasn’t so crazy after all.

In her last years, Veronica Franco tried to establish a shelter for the destitute women of Venice and former prostitutes. At the time of her death in 1591 at the age of 45 (younger than I am now) she was not intestate. Franco had left a detailed will that demonstrates thoughtful instructions for the distribution of her limited assets and custodial care for her children. Though she ended up falling into obscurity, Veronica Franco’s fascinating life is worthy of a revival for anyone interested in topics of Venetian history, poetry, or women’s rights. The 1998 film “Dangerous Beauty” was based on Veronica Franco from Margaret Rosenthal’s biography The Honest Courtesan

Yearning for Maud

Am I too late for Saint Patrick’s Day? Not according to my clock. It’s almost 9PM New York City time so I’m right in there! Would have posted earlier today but I was busy taking Mom to the doctor’s. I’m sure the patron saint of Ireland would understand 🙂

I will seize any occasion to post poetry by William Butler Yeats – a longtime favorite of mine – and this day of celebrating all things Irish will do just fine. The maestro of symbolism and verse had me hooked since the first time I read the sea voyage of “Sailing to Byzantium” and its “no country for old men”, “tattered coat upon a stick”, “singing-masters of my soul”, monuments, mosaics, and “Grecian goldsmiths”. The Dublin-born Yeats is also responsible for what is probably my favorite short lyrical poem ever, “Cloths of Heaven”. I memorized it many years ago and it continues to move me … “tread softly”.

The inspiration behind that poem was Maud Gonne, Yeats’ muse and love of his life – a love that was unrequited. He proposed marriage four times .. and was rejected four times. Though she was born in England in 1866, Maud became an active revolutionary and fervent supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement, having been spurred on by the Land War and the attending civil unrest. She was also an actress and organizer of feminist causes. Of the tumultuous political climate in which she lived Maud wrote, “it is the English who are forcing war on us”.

Photo of Maud Gonne:

MaudGonne

The intuitive Yeats sensed right away that Maud was a force to be reckoned with, and described the moment he first met her as the day “the troubling of my life began”. Gonne, a convert to Catholicism, and Yeats, a Protestant, shared an intensely strong emotional bond and had a common fascination with the occult. But Maud simply could not conceive of marrying the moody poet. Instead, she married fellow Irish Nationalist John MacBride. Yeats was crushed. The union, however, was unhappy and acrimonious. Maud and John had one son, Sean MacBride born 1904, who became a prominent figure in the IRA and later a founding member of Amnesty International.

For decades, Yeats carried a torch for Maud and agonized over her involvements with other men. His continued pain over her having escaped him is manifest in his poetry. But Maud had his number and expressed this alternate view about their relationship:

“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”

Maud telling it like it is! Damn girl. She certainly has point. Here’s an example of that beautiful, lovelorn-inspired poetry Yeats composed from of his heartache over Maud. We may not like to admit it, but loss, regret, and grief really do inspire poignant and powerful artistic expressions.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Charcoal drawing of W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent, 1908:

Sargent-william-butler-yeats-1908

Crimes and Misdemeanors

If for nothing else, social media interactions can spur discoveries and offer interesting shares that one might have been unfamiliar with. Block out the irritations of the Internet and some cool stuff can come your way. The Ashmolean Museum recently posted an image to Twitter that caught my attention. It was this self-portrait by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the celebrated sculptor of the Baroque era. I’ve seen most of his self-portraits – he did quite a few – but I’d never seen this one before. He created it in black, red, and white chalk, circa 1635:

BerniniSelfPortrait

The drawing has a strange intimacy to it that intrigues me. His gaze is hard to pinpoint. Oddly, it is direct but a little preoccupied. Engaged but a little jaded. Cool but a little confused. I honestly can’t decide if he’s saying “You lookin’ at me, pal?” or “Whatever, dude”. His overall appearance is informal, with unkempt hair and a five o’clock shadow. He could almost be a young hipster barista making cappuccinos at a coffee bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the 17th century artistic wunderkind.

Bernini, the uniquely gifted sculptor who could turn marble into flesh and render stone creations with stunning action and theatricality, is a compelling and charismatic figure in art history. One cannot imagine a survey of Western art without his Ecstasy of St Teresa or Apollo and Daphne. The man himself possessed a personality which matched the intensity of his art. His notoriously hot temper was offset by his gregarious, outgoing disposition, well-roundedness (he was also an architect, poet, writer, and stage designer) and dedicated work ethic. It’s been said that he would chatter up a storm while he worked, telling jokes and sharing gossip with his assistants as he chiseled away in his studio. Like many sculptors he was physically strong and agile. And because his astonishing talents were evident to all, Bernini enjoyed a largely easy ride in terms of his career. He was showered with praise and recognition from his early years and it never waned. This, as I’m sure you all know, can be both a blessing and a curse.

Bernini was neither a sweetheart nor a monster. At only one point in his life did he go completely batshit crazy. And that one time sure was a doozy. A disturbing, mad, jealousy-infused doozy. Are you ready for the twisted soap opera? Fasten your seat belts.

In 1636 Bernini began an affair with Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of Bernini’s assistant Matteo Bonarelli. To describe it as “hot and heavy” would be an understatement. Bernini’s sculpture of her will tell us everything we need to know. She is tousled. She is lusty. She seems to be in some ravished stage of pre or post coitus. Her lips are parted, her blouse is undone. She is fleshy and earthy. She is not a proper aristocratic lady sitting decorously for a commissioned sculpture bust. She is, quite clearly, Bernini’s lover and object of his infatuation.

Bernini-Costanza

At the height of the torrid affair, Bernini was tipped off that Costanza was possibly sleeping with another man – not her husband but yet another lover. The lady got around apparently. The other man turned out to be none other than Bernini’s brother Luigi who was a rather unsavory character. Bernini, in the throes of unhinged jealousy, went ballistic. He spied on Costanza to confirm the rumor and, sure enough, spotted his brother emerging from her house. What ensued was pure madness. Bernini chased down Luigi and attacked him with an iron crowbar, breaking his ribs. He chased him again, this time with a sword, threatening to kill him. When his brother sought refuge in a church, the raging Bernini attempted to kick down the doors. But he wasn’t done with his vengeful impulses. Bernini ordered one of his servants to go to Costanza’s house and slash her face, which the man did, with a razor blade.

As for the fallout of this gruesome incident, Luigi fled to Bologna, fearing for his safety. Costanza, disfigured for life, was imprisoned for adultery. The servant who did the slashing was also sent to prison. And Bernini was issued a fine – a fine – which was eventually waived by his benefactor Pope Urban VIII, under the agreement that Bernini would marry, get his shit together, and live a respectable life. It pays to have friends in high places.

Another Bernini self-portrait:

GianLorenzo-Bernini-Autoritratto-1630ca-665x848

So Bernini went unpunished for his behavior, and Costanza paid the criminal price for adultery which the men eluded. This was, of course, 17th century Europe and a society structured in ways that baffle us. On the other hand, it’s not so baffling in that some aspects remain constant and are unlikely to ever change. Esteemed and advantaged people, like Bernini was then, receive special treatment, much like they do today. But for what it’s worth, Bernini did go on to marry, father eleven children, and live a pious life as a devout Catholic attending mass regularly. It appears he learned his lesson. Bernini suffered a stroke in his elderly years and died at the age of 82.

Miss Demarsy Does LA

Helloooo hellooooooooo!!!! How are my dear Museworthy friends? I’m here. I’m alive! Just had a busy week of art modeling for which I am grateful. Now gratitude has turned into relief that my schedule is quieting down until after Thanksgiving. Whew! I hope none of you are suffering with foot pain like I am. Between standing poses and walking the city streets, my feet take a beating. Any reflexologists out there? 😉

Some of you may have heard about the art auction fever of recent weeks. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s held thrilling blockbuster sales. Among the lots up for purchase was an enchanting 1881 Manet painting called Le Printemps (“Spring”), which exceeded expectations and sold for $65 million at the Christie’s auction. That is a record high price tag for a Manet. So who is the new owner of this fetching work? The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which announced the new acquisition in an excellent press release and a very delighted tweet. It was especially nice to see an art institution obtain the work instead of, say, another hedge fund manager. Congratulations Getty! She’s a beauty 🙂

Manet-Le-Printemps

The model for Le Printemps is Jeanne Demarsy, a popular Parisian actress during the 1880s and 1890s who served as an art muse for both Manet and Renoir. She was born Anne Darlaud in 1865 in Limoges, and her sister Eugénie-Marie also worked as an artist’s model and actress. Jeanne made her stage debut in 1887 in Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld” in the role of Venus. In Le Printemps Manet painted Demarsy in a most charming arrangement; holding a parasol with gloved hand and wearing an adorable bonnet. What’s impressive to me is that Manet managed to depict the lush verdant colors of spring without allowing them to overwhelm or compete with the subject. Jeanne is still front and center. The black bow breaks up the profusion of colors very nicely. Visualize the work for a moment without the black bow. Very different, yes? Well done Monsieur Manet.

In this vintage of photo of Jeanne Demarsy we can see that she has soft, expressive eyes and a gentle countenance:

De_Marsy_vers_1890

Manet made this lovely pastel sketch of Jeanne the same year he painted Le Printemps. While this wouldn’t sell for $65 million at auction, heck I’d be more than happy to own it. Christie’s, let’s start the bidding! 😆

Édouard_Manet_-_Jeunne_Femme_(Jeanne_de_Marsy)

Hand in Hand

Tumblr has become my go-to place these days for discovering and browsing art, photography, and lots of other cool things. It’s a remarkably easy to use microblogging platform and if you follow the right people you can really enjoy yourself passing the time. My Tumblr page is “Meanderings”.

I happened upon this image of an Edouard Vuillard painting that caught my eye. It’s titled Seated Woman with Joined Hands, from the year 1916. I really like what Vuillard did here in terms of his palette, composition, and capturing of the subject’s presence. I tried to find out the identity of the sitter, as Vuillard used mostly friends and family members as his models. It’s very possible that this woman is his longtime mistress Lucy Hessel, but I can’t say with certainty. This is Lucy here. What do you think?

Vuillard

There is another reason why I studied this painting for a while; the clasped hands. In my earlier years as an art model I avoided putting my hands together, folded-style, for poses. Why? For one thing, I was so busy showing off my entire body and trying to be “exciting” that stodgy, old-fashioned hand-folding just wasn’t in the cards. It’s stupid, I know. Also, part of me just doesn’t like the gesture all that much. From a body language standpoint it can come across as stiff and guarded, putting up a “barrier” if you will. I also reasoned that since human hands are so expressive it seemed a shame to knot them together and hide the fingers. My paternal grandmother is seated with folded hands in almost every old family photo and I’ve never liked it. Just reminds me of her somewhat stern and less than warm personality.

But Vuillard’s depiction here works very well. The woman’s arm is leaning on the leg, like one would sit if casually talking. And if you zoom in to view the hands up close you can see that Vuillard used just a mess of short brushstrokes in darks and lights. Very nice. And by the way, you’ll all be happy to know that I have expanded my posing repertoire since the early days, so I do fold my hands now, albeit in small doses 😉

Some other artworks with folded hands. Compare and contrast these with Vuillard’s.

Girl With Folded Hands, Wilhelm Trubner, 1878:

WilhelmTrubner

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Middle-Aged Woman with Hands Folded, circa 1640:

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Augustus Leopold Egg, A Girl with Clasped Hands 

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Chasing Isabel – Gaston Lachaise and his Muse

So fellas, how far would you travel to be with the woman you love? The woman who inspires you? For French-born sculptor Gaston Lachaise the distance was 3,400 miles, though we can presume he would have traveled a lot farther than that for his muse, the person who set afire both his artistic imagination and erotic passions. For an attraction that powerful, a trip across the Atlantic is a mere walk down the block.

She was Isabel Dutaud Nagle, an American woman vacationing in Paris during the early 1900s. Gaston Lachaise was still a young 20 year old art student at the Académie Nationale des Beaux-Arts when he first caught sight of her walking along the Seine. He was instantaneously captivated. There was only one problem; Isabel was married. She was also ten years his senior.

Isabel Nagle photographed in Paris, 1904:

isabel-1904

The son of a skilled woodcarver and cabinetmaker, Gaston Lachaise received training in the decorative arts from the age of 13. Immersed in apprenticeships and a supportive family, Gaston Lachaise was on a solid path to a life of creating art. But then, with a promising career in sculpture ready to break out, Lachaise did the unthinkable. At a time when artists from all over the world came TO Paris, often without a dollar to their name, to study and create and live in the city that was the happening, stimulating hub of vitality for artists during the 1900s  – Gaston Lachaise did the opposite. He made plans to leave Paris and follow Isabel to her home in Boston. On the surface it seemed he was going in the wrong direction. For an up and coming artist in 1904, Paris was the place to be, the heart, the “scene”. But in a choice between hobnobbing with Picasso, Modigliani, and art dealers in Montparnasse, or packing up and relocating to America to be with the woman he loved, Lachaise chose the latter.

But the logistics of such a move were not without snags. In 1903, the year Lachaise turned 21, he was was drafted into the French Army. He served an uneventful 12 months during which he could not see his beloved Isabel. It was also during this time that Isabel had to return to Boston. Her husband was a wealthy businessman who refused to grant her a divorce until their son Edward was grown and enrolled in Harvard. Isabel accepted those conditions. In the meantime, Gaston Lachaise was discharged from the army and, instead of returning to formal study, secured a steady job in the studios of René Lalique where he cast jewelry, modeled vases and other art nouveau objects that were all the rage of the day. Before long he had earned enough money to pay for his passage across the Atlantic plus $60. His girl was waiting for him.

Isabel doing a nice nude twist on the rocks:

35illchisalito

On December 5, 1905, Gaston Lachaise set sail for America. He arrived in Boston one month later and was reunited with his muse. He would never return to France again. Lachaise found work in the atelier of sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson and enjoyed the time he and Isabel were able to spend together. They listened to music, discussed art and books, and attended concerts. When Kitson moved to New York City, to a studio on MacDougal Street, Lachaise followed him. Isabel came soon after. By 1912, Lachaise was assistant to Paul Manship and about to enter the period of formidable personal expression in his own work, driven of course by his enchanting and inspiring muse. Of Isabel he wrote, “through her the splendor of life was uncovered for me and the road of wonder began widening.”.

Gaston Lachaise’s figurative sculptures are known for their Junoesque stature and voluptuous dimensions. Certainly Isabel was no skinny waif, but she was not quite the imposing figure of Gaston’s work either. In reality she was only 5’2″ tall and weighed around 110 pounds. But like many artists are inclined to do, Lachaise exaggerated for artistic effect, amplifying the sensuousness, strength, and vigorous force of the human form. This is one of Lachaise’s most famous works of Isabel, “Elevation”, in bronze. A fascinating sculpture that presents a full-figured torso and thick thighs in an active gesture balancing effortlessly on the tiptoes of tiny delicate feet. It looks as if she could lift off and float away, light as a feather.

Lachaise-StandingWoman

It’s hard to miss the influences of Rodin and Maillol. They along with Lachaise exalted the human form to archetypes of potency, energy, and forces of nature. Committed to his vision of “Woman” as he felt it and experienced it through Isabel, Gaston Lachaise remained faithful to his passions and his artistic vocabulary.

This is Gaston Lachaise’s “Floating Figure” at the National Gallery of Australia, also inspired by Isabel. Completed in plaster in 1927, there are seven bronze casts in existence altogether. At first glance we see an almost caricature-like exaggeration. But Lachaise is presenting us with curvaceous lines and shapes, which are inherently womanly and feminine, a disproportionately small head, and a cross-legged seated pose with outstretched arms that communicates a peculiar mixture of control, tranquility, expansiveness. An odd, original, memorable work of modern figurative sculpture:

LachaiseFloatingFigure

1917 was a banner year for Gaston Lachaise. He became a United States citizen, finally married the now-divorced Isabel, and was preparing for his solo show of sculpture and drawing at Stephan Bourgeois Galleries in New York. The next seventeen years brought more exhibitions, commissions, great success and critical acclaim, and the purchase of a summer home in Maine. In retrospect, Lachaise’s infatuation-induced decision to leave Paris for America was a wise one, however impulsive it may have been. His union with Isabel was happily made official, and his career flourished in his adopted homeland. He called America “The New World” and added that “The American soil is fresh. It is fertile. Flowers and fruit of new species will come forth from it to lighten the world.” The old adage about following your heart is exemplified by the journey of Gaston Lachaise.

And then, in 1935, Lachaise’s life and career were cut short by the sudden onset of acute leukemia. He died just months after a triumphant retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. Isabel Nagle, who left her previous husband to be with Gaston Lachaise, was now his widow. He had written 567 love letters to her and credited her as his “primary inspiration”. Isabel lived for another 25 years after Gaston’s death.

35illchaise111

An invaluable source of images and information for this post came from the Lachaise Foundation . Definitely check them out to learn more. Also of interest, an old art review from the New York Times

Lady Meux

In the previous Museworthy post, commenters Bill and Chris added to my exhibition links by mentioning the new Dutch Paintings show at the Frick Collection, something I neglected to include in the post. Thanks guys! Forgetting Vermeer, the great master of the Dutch Golden Age, is a punishable offense in my opinion. I’ll go sit in the corner now 😆

Apart from special exhibitions, The Frick is home to one of the most impressive permanent art collections in the world. If you were to ask New Yorkers which of our magnificent museums they most adore, more than a few will claim the Frick as their favorite. The museum’s mansion building, located on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street on Manhattan’s upper east side, was the residence of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.  Among the many treasures in the Frick’s possessions is James McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, 1882. One glance at the alluring beauty, frank stare, and defiant posture of this woman and the viewer is compelled to learn more about her.

WhistlerMeux

The scenario is one we’ve heard before, and it’s almost as old as time itself. For some of us it never loses its intrigue and appeal: young woman of modest and/or sketchy background marries into a wealthy, prominent family, is not accepted in polite society, proceeds to stir things up despite being treated as an outsider and generally doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of her. Lady Meux was born Valerie Susan Langdon in 1847, daughter of a village butcher in the county of Devon. Little is known about her early years, only that she claimed to be an actress and worked as a barmaid and banjo-strumming music hall performer under the name Val Reece. The inevitable rumors of her possibly working as a prostitute swirled about. Fast forward to 1878 when she met, in a tavern or casino of some sort, Sir Henry Meux, 2nd Baronet, member of Parliament and heir to the Meux & Co. brewery fortune. Sparks flew, they married in haste, and the aristocratic circles of England now had an eccentric, strong-willed, violet-eyed interloper in their midst.

In the early 1880s, James Whistler was still recovering from his rancorous libel suit against John Ruskin, a trial which left the artist financially bankrupt. Lady Meux’s offer for some paid commissioned work  couldn’t have come at a better time for Whistler, so naturally he jumped at the chance. The Pink and Grey piece above is one of the works produced from their sessions. This one, Arrangement in Black, is another. It hangs in the Honolulu Museum of Art. Dripping in furs and diamonds, Lady Meux is unabashedly presenting herself as a socialite, as if to say “Yeah, I married into money. You got a problem with that?” . The butcher’s daughter from Devon strikes a pose. Work it girl 😉

WhistlerMeuxBlack

A third painting was created but was eventually destroyed by Whistler himself. We don’t know the specifics, but apparently he and Lady Meux exchanged testy words during a sitting. His prolonged, tedious demands got on her last nerve, she voiced her impatience, he didn’t appreciate her complaining, and the whole thing was called off. Whatever remained of the painting was obliterated at Whistler’s hands in disgust.

Being shunned by upper-crust Victorian society had zero effect on Lady Meux’s dogged pursuit of her interests. She was an avid collector of ancient Egyptian artifacts and rare Ethiopian manuscripts, owned thoroughbred racehorses, renovated the Meux’s estate at Hertfordshire, which included the installation of a roller rink, and is  believed to have been an incognito attendee at boxing prizefights. It is also said that she had herself transported around town in a carriage pulled by zebras!

But not all of Lady Meux’s ventures were acts of flamboyant self-indulgence. Upon hearing of the British Navy’s tough battles during the Second Boer War, Lady Meux personally ordered and paid for six “12 pounder” high-velocity artillery guns to be sent to the Royal Navy. The War Office refused the shipment, so Lady Meux had them sent directly to South Africa. According to Wikipedia, the Boer War chapter  of Lady Meux’s life – and her colorful life itself – ends this way:

When Sir Hedoworth Lambton, (the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith) returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to thank her for her gift and recount his adventures. She was so taken with him that she made him the chief beneficiary of her will, on condition that he change his surname to Meux (she was without direct heirs). When she died on 20 December 1910, he willingly changed his name by Royal Warrant and inherited the Hertfordshire estate and a substantial interest in the Meux Brewery.

I found online the New York Times obituary of Lady Meux, published in 1910.

Have a great weekend, friends! I’ve got more modeling – of course – and Momma’s birthday on Saturday. See you soon 🙂

Meeting Modigliani

I’ve always been ambivalent about the theory behind first impressions and the people we meet. It’s commonly believed that the first is one that sticks and proves accurate over time. While my personal experience has shown this to be largely true, I have known some exceptions. Conversely, I wonder about some first impressions I’ve given in my life. Wish I could take a few of those back! 😮 I try to consider that a person might be having the proverbial “bad day” on that first encounter, but I’m inclined to think that our “truth” – our inherent nature, habits, and tendencies – can never fully be disguised, good day or bad.

Beatrice Hastings (born Emily Alice Haigh) was an English writer and poet, raised in South Africa. Her works were published in the British literary magazine The New Age. Upon moving to Paris in the years before the war, she soon became a known figure in the Bohemian circles that frequented the cafes and cabarets of Montparnasse. It was inevitable that she would cross paths with the poster boy of Bohemian Paris life, sculptor and painter Amadeo Modigliani. In 1914, after meeting the then 30 year-old artist Beatrice wrote down her first impressions:

“A complex character. A pig and a pearl. Met in 1914 at a ‘cremerie’. I sat opposite him. Hashish and brandy. Not at all impressed. Didn’t know who he was. He looked ugly, ferocious, greedy.”

J-MODIGLIANI'S-PHOTO

Beatrice sure didn’t mince words! But given what we know about Modigliani – his sickliness from tuberculosis, his hashish and opium addictions, and his violent temperament – Hastings’ initial impressions are not surprising. If anything, they’re spot on. Now look at what she wrote about her next encounter with him:

“Met again at the Cafe Rotonde. He was shaved and charming. Raised his cap with a pretty gesture blushed to his eyes and asked me to come and see his work. Went. Always a book in his pocket, Lautreamont’s Maldoror. Despised everyone but Picasso and Max Jacob. Loathed Cocteau.”

So Modi cleaned up a bit, extended himself, and confided feelings about his peers after spending time with his new acquaintance. These are the kinds of developments that naturally happen when people get to know each other better. Beatrice Hastings’ sharp eye for observation creates a portrait of an intense, complicated  man. But do her second impressions cancel out the first? Not necessarily. The second may simply augment the first. Sure Modigliani came across as more presentable and more well-mannered on the second meeting, but that does not mean the “ferociousness” he radiated the first time had evaporated. It was likely still there, only framed in a broader scope of reference. Or momentarily suspended. Or tempered by a shave 😆

I met an artist a few years ago whose first impression struck me as snippy. Then I got to know her. We became friends and are friends to this day. She’s a wonderful person but she is, in fact, snippy. Snippy in a harmless, hilarious, sarcastic way that fits well in the context of her personality. Qualities understood in a person as a whole are different than qualities perceived in isolation, detached from knowing the total individual, as they are in first impressions. That’s my theory at least.

One of Modigliani’s many portraits of Beatrice Hastings:

Modigliani-BeatriceHastings

As one would expect, Beatrice Hastings and Modigliani became lovers. They lived together for about two years until Beatrice broke it off. It seems that they were not well-matched and the relationship was doomed from the start. He was jealous and possessive, she was fiercely independent and opinionated. He had a shabby appearance, she was always well-dressed.  He used drugs, she preferred not to. He was driven by passions, she by intellect. They had vicious fights, often in public. But through it all, Beatrice sat for many Modigliani portraits and served as his muse.

hastings-1

After her affair with Modigliani, Beatrice Hastings’ life gradually spiraled downward over the course of many years. She traveled though Europe, broke acrimoniously from The New Age, and harbored bitter feelings about her former colleagues. In 1943 she committed suicide by filling her apartment with gas. In the years before her death, Beatrice had published some scathing pamphlets in which she ridiculed most of the people she had ever known and worked with, with one notable exception: Modigliani. Spared her attacks. Perhaps first impressions don’t stick after all?

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:

Emilie Flöge – Art and Fashion with Gustav Klimt

I spent a delicious hour browsing in the art section of Strand Bookstore the other night. For non-New Yorkers, or anyone who hasn’t experienced it, you should know that the Art section of Strand is a thing to behold. Although I don’t always, this time I walked out with a purchase: softcover book of Gustav Klimt drawings. At $6.95 a great bargain.

My book purchase sent me into Klimt mode. He’s one of my very favorite artists and it’s always good to re-visit favorites from time to time, to refresh our adoration, and be reminded of why we love them. So the time has come for me to post a magnificent Klimt that I’ve been meaning to share for the longest time. It’s archetypal Klimt. It’s dazzling. It’s colorful. It’s the one and only Emilie Flöge.

Portrait of Emilie Flöge, 1902, Gustav Klimt:

To say that women were Klimt’s preferred artistic subjects would be a spectacular understatement. Indeed, Klimt was a superb landscape painter, but his works of female models are his most notable, and memorable, creations. He acted on his obsessions with women unabashedly, and those obsessions were alive and kicking not just on his canvases but in his personal life as well. The man had a ferocious sexual appetite.

Emilie Flöge, however, was more than just some passing object of Klimt’s lust and affection. Not just another model strolling nude around his studio. Emilie was his partner, muse, and companion for years, right up until his death in 1918. They first met in 1891 when Emilie’s sister Helene married Ernst Klimt, Gustav’s brother. When Ernst died suddenly a year later, Klimt took on the role of guardian for Helene and became close with then 18 year old Emilie, also his sister-in-law.

Emilie was a skilled seamstress and, along with her sister Helene and older sister Pauline, started a dressmaking company that specialized in haute couture. The Flöge sisters salon, located in the heart of Vienna, was a great success. Emilie was an excellent businesswoman and a free-thinking, visionary designer. She created fashions during a most exciting, thriving era for all areas of arts and design – the turn-of-the-century and early 20th century. For women’s garments this signified a gradual goodbye to the dreaded corset, and the ushering in of looser shapes and less-constricting styles, which became known as “Reformed Dress”. Attitudes were changing. The Flöge sisters also promoted bolder patterns, many of which were designed by Emilie’s companion, Gustav Klimt. He also took fashion photographs, drew sketches, and designed some dresses himself. I bet all you men who admire Klimt as a macho, womanizing painter didn’t know he contributed his talents to the fashion world did you? I think it’s so cool! Klimt even designed the smock-like garment he is often wearing in photographs. Gustav Klimt, fashionista and metrosexual 😆

In researching Emilie’s life on the internet, I found some of the best information on fashion websites. Check this one out and this one. And more photos of Emilie modeling her fashions on this message board.

It is unclear whether Klimt and Emilie’s relationship was romantic and sexual or purely platonic and professional. But Emilie is believed to be the female model in Klimt’s famous work The Kiss, which obviously suggests a sexual relationship. Either way, the two shared a very close bond. Their artistic pursuits and bohemian sensibilities made them an impressive pair, sought out by Viennese high society for commissioned art and custom made fashions.

This is a cute picture of them in their frocks:

My Klimt post from March 2009.

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 👿 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

Art For Art’s Sake

You gotta love James McNeill Whistler. As the pretentious art establishment attempted – and still attempts to this day – to analyze the “meanings” of paintings, Whistler would have none of it. A staunch proponent of “art for art’s sake”, the American expatriate artist thought the dissection and deconstruction of his work nothing more than a pointless, pompous exercise.

Whistler’s grievance was that art had long been thought to serve a purpose–  a moral, social, or political function of some sort. An artist began a painting for a specific, understood objective. The end result would represent maybe a religious narrative, an historical event, a mythological tale, or perhaps even a psychological exploration into the human condition. To create art merely for “art’s sake” was virtually unheard of or not taken seriously, that is until Whistler and some of his 19th century cohorts promoted what is known as the Aesthetic Movement.

Why not simply create a painting because you want to? Because the subject matter is intriguing to you? Because it inspires you? Because it will be beautiful? Can’t such a creation possess it’s own intrinsic value? Shouldn’t the expression of the artist’s own personal vision, disentangled from the public’s expectations, be enough to qualify as “art”? Whistler vehemently believed so. Indeed, much of the art prior to Whistler’s day carried a lot of baggage, or as Whistler called it, “claptrap” . The time had come for artists to achieve true freedom – the freedom to create without obligation of any kind, without the burden of messages and morals and social acceptance. Without all that complicated, weighty “meaning” stuff. The pursuit of beauty was enough.

I also think that Whistler was rebelling against the idea that works of art belonged to the public or were created to satisfy the public’s sensibilities. But the reality is that an artist can be motivated by any number of things. I know just from my own experience as a model, that artists often create work to explore certain visual aspects of painting – spatial relationships, composition, tonal contrasts, form, line, etc. Whistler, for example, was interested in experimenting with limited color palettes, as many of his works are titled “Harmony in Blue”, “Symphony in Green”, “Red and Black”, “Pearl and Silver”, and so on. In other words, an artist can create art for whatever reason they damn well want.

But the art establishment refused to cooperate with Whistler’s philosophy. Nowhere was this more evident than in the debut of his famous work The White Girl or Symphony in White No. 1.

The model was Whistler’s muse and companion Joanna Hiffernan, a strong-willed Irish-born beauty with a mane of thick long hair and fair skin. (More on Jo in another post). She stands dressed in white against a white drapery backdrop, her face expressionless, her stance somewhat stiff. Predictably, the painting was rejected by the notoriously uptight and conventional Paris Salon of 1863. But it was eventually shown at the Salon des Refusés.

Critics were perplexed by the piece and went wild with their “interpretations”. Certainly the white dress represented a virginal woman, right? But did the bear skin rug suggest a ruined virgin? An innocent girl who had been ravaged? Yes, many of them jumped in the “lost innocence” bandwagon. Or was she a bride on her wedding day? You know, because she is holding a flower? Was it an allegory? Surely there was some story, some narrative behind the scene. Actually there wasn’t, but still it kept going. Other critics assumed she represented the heroine in a previously published novel by Wilkie Collins titled “The Woman in White”. But Whistler had no idea what they were talking about and was irritated by the comparison. He had neither read nor even heard of the book.

What did it mean? What did the painting MEAN????? The speculation and deconstruction persisted. They came up with every possible interpretation except for the correct one which is explained succinctly in Whistler’s own words: “My painting simply represents a girl dressed in white standing in front of white curtain”. Well. There you have it 🙂