Used and Abused: The Life of a Muse

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Throughout history, women (mostly) have modeled for male (mostly) artists. This has often worked out swimmingly for the men, whose paintings or sculptures might become famous — but not so well for the women.

In the best-case scenario, the women are lauded for their beauty (think of Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring ) but we know nothing, or very little, about who they were and what their lives were like. In the worst case, the models are mistreated by the artist while they're working together, and when they're dropped (because the artist is bored, or moving on to another subject) they're institutionalized or commit suicide.

This is the subject of a Off-Broadway one-woman show I reviewed recently, The Human Fruit Bowl, which explores what happened to Renée Monchaty, the muse of post-impressionist artist Pierre Bonnard. Did she kill herself in a bathtub? Or some other way? And when, exactly? In the photo below, Monchaty is at the table and Bonnard's wife, Marthe Bonnard, is on the far right, glaring at her.

Art critic Deborah Solomon joined me for the play and she said she was not surprised by it. "It's another tragic story of an artist's relationship with his forgotten model," she said. Being dropped by an artist is a terrible way to exit a relationship — because you're losing not only the person but the luxury of his gaze."

Some examples, she said, are Camile Claudel, who posed for French sculptor Auguste Rodin and had to be institutionalized after he dropped her, Dora Maar, who posed for Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, and Billy Payne, who was painted by American artist Norman Rockwell.

QUESTION: Would you be willing to be an artist's muse? Why? Or why not? Answer in the comments.

Pierre Bonnard, Young Women in the Garden (Renee Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard). Private collection. (Robert Lorenzson, Atrists Rights Society (ARS), Courtesy Met Museum)

Billy Payne posed for all three boys in this Norman Rockwell magazine cover, "Boy with Baby Carriage," 1916. (Public domain)



Deborah Solomon

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Comments [12]

susan from manhattan!!

I was very interested in the story, and the show, as my husband attends life drawing and painting classes, and knows many models. What is "cruel" today is that the models at most of the art schools in NYC are paid such low wages. Many are artists, actors, dancers, and are trying to scrape together a few bucks. One well-known school even LOWERED their models' hourly wage, and has systematically been dismissing "legacy" (older) models.
Another tragic story from the past is Audrey Munson, the beautiful model who posed for "Civic Fame", the gold statue atop the Municipal Building and many other Beaux Arts sculptures. Check it out - very similar to the other ones.

Apr. 03 2014 11:42 AM

Why the word "glaring" used when referring to Bonnard's wife? Her back is towards us, and using a word with such strong negative connotations (rather than something more neutral like "looking towards" or "facing") is very leading. Is there a background of jealousy or dislike that was not provided in the article?

Apr. 02 2014 05:39 PM

enelson and Sabrina - what interesting stories! Thanks so much for sharing!

Apr. 02 2014 02:37 PM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Dear Village Painter-
Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Of course the act of dropping a model is not necessarily a cruel one, but it can inflict pain on a model and we all know of cases in which it HAS inflicted pain on a model. So yes, I would say that art can be cruel, but that all is fair in love, war and art.

Apr. 02 2014 01:44 PM
Deborah Solomon from WNYC

Dear Jennifer,
Thanks so much for this sensitive and fascinating report. I wanted to mention something I have been thinking about.
Perhaps you saw the Balthus show at the Met last fall. Therese Blanchard, a neighbor of Balthus, was 11 when she started posing for him. As we all know, he painted her repeatedly in sexually frank poses. When I saw the show, I wondered what had happened to her. A wall label furnished the year of her death- and I calculated that she was only 25 when she died.
Bumping into Sabine Rewald, the vastly knowledge curator of the show, I asked her how Therese died. She said she did not know. She knew that Therese had died at a hospital in Paris, but only a family member, by law, could access her records. If there are any feminist art historians reading this, I am proposing a project for you! Locate a relative of Therese Blanchard and determine the cause of her death. Was she a suicide? Another of those tragic models who remain universally celebrated -- and totally unknown?

Apr. 02 2014 12:51 PM

"luxurious man-hating", WTF is that? Get a grip, dude.

Apr. 02 2014 12:37 PM
Victorianartlover from Manhattan

It's really important to draw a distinction between artistic practice in the nineteenth-century (or earlier) and today's. Models, presumably female ones more than male, were susceptible to the cultural norms and currents that ruled their time. If we are examining abuses of artists' models in earlier centuries we probably should take into account the obsessive relationships between the artist and the muse--how a female model would have related to her own immortalization in art, how she viewed her role, especially if she was sexually involved with her portrayer, potential issues of masochism, martyrdom, class oppression. Lizzie Siddal, muse and wife of Dante Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelite painters probably did nearly die posing in a bathtub of cold water for John Millais' painting Ophelia (1852). This probably would not occur in a modern painter's studio, I think.

Apr. 02 2014 11:23 AM
Sabrina from NYC Metro

I was an artists' model at university, for the drawing and painting classes, but before that, I was a model for an artist who painted me obsessively over the course of a few years...I was very young and was decades my senior. Our relationship made my family very nervous as they worried it was an inappropriate relationship (it wasn't). I moved away, we lost touch, he moved out west.

I returned home to visit and while at a restaurant, a man came up and said to me "You're Sabrina, aren't you? I met you once in a painting!"

He had moved to west, settled in Arizona, and had continued his portrait painting (many of the Native Americans he painted resembled me).

He died when the air conditioning failed in his house. He wasn't discovered for quite a while.

In all, I think I sat for 15-18 paintings, but I was told he painted many more from memory. My mother has the only one I know of.

It didn't ruin my life, I was not rejected...but there are so many unanswered questions that I will never have answers for.

Apr. 02 2014 09:04 AM

Of course artists still paint from the model! Just because a few famous figurative artists do not use a model, doesn't mean that artists everywhere aren't still working directly from life. Camille Claudel was an artist in her own right, She was put in an institution by her family against her will. I am an artist who works from the model and I have been a model as well. The artist is not cruel for "dropping " a model.
Deborah Solomon you should know better! Jeesh.

Apr. 02 2014 07:59 AM
YZ from NYC

I think man-hating is a little extreme. What's definitely true here is that this show presupposes that artist-model relationships are by definition anything other than normal professional working relationships. Rockwell and his model, Billy Payne, for example, had a wonderful working relationship. Payne's death had nothing to do with any personal issues he was having, and if he had personal issues they certainly had nothing to do with Payne's modeling for Rockwell.

This is a lot of hype that contributes to the overly dramatic, romanticized, and harmful conception of artists in our society.

And "people prefer the female nude because it has curves"?! All bodies have curves. Give me a break.

Apr. 02 2014 07:59 AM
enelson from New York

The question was asked: Would you be an artist's muse? I am a past art model. I spent several years traveling between studios in Texas for painters and sculptures, private classes and groups, both entry level and advanced. I even modeled for a group of video game designers because their company required them to keep up their drawing skills beyond the computer. When I began, I wasn't sure how I would feel, I only knew that I wanted to contribute to the process of creating something, and I wanted to watch the moment of inception. When you stand perfectly still for hours at a time, you are allowed to witness the evolving landscape of an artist's face. It is both beautiful and freeing, intimate and profoundly respectful. And in this context, you do not need to posses traditional beauty. The artist sees beyond that, and they make you their own.

Apr. 02 2014 07:58 AM
GaryBoy from Manhattan

If a woman was institutionalized after being fired as a model, then the poor thing had mental health issues long before she made the conscious decision to seek the spotlight as a model. This 1 woman show can only be rife with fashionable, luxurious man-hating. So many women are too afraid to "man up" and take the blame for their poor judgment. Instead of growing up, and improving themselves, they go to 1 woman shows where Victimhood is celebrated.

Apr. 02 2014 07:20 AM

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