Lecture probes nuances of artist-model dynamic

Photo Courtesy of the Clark.
Curator Jennifer Tonkovich explored certain subtleties of French modelling in Thursday’s talk at the Clark’s Manton Research Center.

Beyond what we see depicted in paint, the relationships between artists and their models are often delicate ones. We occasionally hear about an “enlightened” relationship between artist and model, but it is far easier to recall the numerous ones that have been unequal, unevenly gendered and exploitative. Western art theory has also been quick to elevate the artist – typically white and male – as an archetypal genius, excusing his various abuses of his subjects.

At a talk in the Clark’s Manton Research Center auditorium on Sunday, Jennifer Tonkovich, curator of drawings at the Morgan Library and Museum, did not address many of these social implications, although she did bring up other problems. Her talk “French Artists and Their Models” addressed various questions. What sorts of people worked as models? What role did models have in artists’ creative processes? How does an individual artist’s approach to the model reflect more broadly on the artist? Focusing in on 18th and early 19th century studies by French artists – including those by Watteau, Fragonard, Prud’hon, Géricault, Ingres and Delacroix – Tonkovich discussed the complications in technique and narrative that emerged from working with models.

At the beginning of her lecture, Tonkovich made the distinction between the academic artist and the artist who was not trained in the formal setting of the academy. Jean-Antoine Watteau belonged to the latter. Although he did find ways to work from models, Watteau was unaccustomed to drawing from them and thus struggled with anatomy, a fact manifested in a series of studies he did of female models. In Seated Young Woman, a red and white chalk drawing on buff paper currently at the Morgan Library and Museum, a model sits, leaning forward, on an undrawn seat. One bare leg is hanging from her chemise, while the other is bent across it, completely obscured by the garment. Where her feet should emerge from the fabric, Watteau leaves the space undrawn.

Drawings like Seated Young Woman illustrate the significance of models to artists’ development and to academic practice; in these studies, the identity of the model is overlooked but known to correspond to a living person. Other times, drawings seem to correspond to specific historical moments and specific figures, but models may not always be identifiable. Rembrandt’s Four Musicians with Wind Instruments, for example, has long been thought to correspond to a specific wedding ceremony witnessed in Amsterdam in 1638. A recent proposal, however, suggests that he would have had assistants who dressed in costume in his studio, or that the works were drawn from sculptural groups.

The other role that models have taken on is that of inventing narratives for works of art. In 1773, Jean-Honoré Fragonard traveled to Italy as part of the retinue of Pierre Jacques Onésyme Bergeret de Grancourt. The entire year’s journey paid for, Fragonard was free to focus on his drawings, the subjects of which included the Italian landscape and various people he encountered. During a two-month stay in Naples, he produced Portrait of a Neapolitan Woman, a frontal portrait of a woman dressed in earrings, necklaces, fine laces and velvet. Popular narrative leads us to believe that she is a street vendor or fisherman’s wife donning her best clothes for the feast of Januarius. While this has tremendous appeal as a narrative, other drawings by Fragonard that feature the same attire on a different model suggest that she was in fact a model from Naples cast in the role of a street vendor, thus complicating our understanding of the drawing as a portrait.

There were parts of the talk that Tonkovich did not approach with the same level of care that she gave to Fragonard’s trip – and not for lack of information, either. Gericault’s decision to include a black man as the protagonist of Raft of The Medusa was discussed in conspiratorially vague terms, attributing it to Gericault’s belief in “certain Republican sentiments and his political leanings at the time.” While “French Artists and Their Models” succeeded in providing background information on artists and their involvement with models, it neglected to discuss sociopolitical dynamics and thus did not manage to address the more critical questions behind artist-model relationships.

  • The first time I painted a portrait based on a live female model I was so self-conscious and nervous I could barely concentrate. I was surprised by my reaction and embarrassment. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, however, I’m grateful for the model’s time and the skill it takes to sit still in a particular pose. Nothing is better, in the end, than having the model like the painting you have completed. It is a great feeling to get it right.