01 Aug ‘Models, Muses and Infamous Bath-Ware’ Art Talk by Ross Wallis
“Apologies from the start if I offend – this is a talk about young women who have modelled for artists – mostly older men – and I am an older man… My love of life drawing is inevitably bound up with ‘the male gaze’. I was hoping to redress the balance – the women I have chosen were all exceptionally talented, creative, intelligent – and fighting against the crap of a patriarchal system – but I have no doubt failed, and perpetuate the problem – talking about the traumatic loves and lives of these women rather than their incredible and indomitable creative spirits and remarkable art.
I start my talk in ancient Greece, with a courtesan known as Phryne, possibly the worlds first supermodel. her birth name was Mnesarete, which translates as commemorating virtue, Phryne, was a nickname which meant ‘toad’ – given to her due to the pale and pallid yellow hue of her skin.
Born in the Greek city of Thespiae in 371 BC, she lived and worked in Athens as a model and entertainer, basically a high class prostitute selling her body and wit to wealthy, powerful and influential men – but also a performer, although we don’t know what forms her performances took – we do know that Phryne herself became very rich – there is a story that she offered to finance a rebuild the walls of the Greek city of Thebes, destroyed in 335BC by Alexander the Great – as long as they put a plaque on the wall saying “Destroyed by Alexander the Great, rebuild by Phryne the Courtisan”.
Phryne was a hetaira – not your average prostitute (or pornai, as they were known at the time). The hetaira would have had just a few clients, with whom they might have stayed for a long time – more a mistress or companion but alsoperformers, orators, artists, entertainers, musicians, taking part in the Greek symposium – highly educated and women of status.
Phryne is known to have posed for what is possibly the oldest Greek sculpture of a naked woman, sculpted by Praxiteles – a statue of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of sexual love, beauty and fertility. Aphrodite of Knidos. The Greek writer Pausanius (In his ‘Description of Greece’ ) suggests that Phryne was both model and lover to Praxiteles.
Two examples of her quick wit – she was once asked by another lover who was notoriously stingy if she had posed for this sculpture, and she retorted by asking if he had posed for the sculpture Eros of Pheidias – which was a play on the word pheido – which means stingy. She also called the philosopher Xenocrates a statue, having failed to seduce him.
There are a number of anecdotes about Phryne’s clever wit preserved by Athenaeus in his Deipnosophistai – ‘sayings of the philosophers over dinner’
There is another story of her asking Praxiteles which of his own works was his favourite – he said he would gift her his favourite, but wouldn’t tell her which it was – so she tricked him by sending a slave to tell him his studio was on fire – and he called out that the statue of Eros should be saved – so she then knew his favourite – in another version of the story he gives her the statue, but asks to
sleep with her ‘without extra charge’ suggesting that she was his muse, but also that he was her client.
The story of the statue comes from the writings of the Roman Pliny the Elder who records that the statue was commissioned by the people of the Island of Kos – but that they asked for a clothed model, and Praxiteles sculpted both a clothed and naked version – as did Goya with his two Naha paintings. They rejected the naked version horrified – a sculpture depicting female nudity being
scandalous at the time – although male nudity was ok… The neighbouring peoples of Knidos bought the statue – and placed it in a temple with open sides, so it could be admired from all sides.
There is a story told by the satirist Lucian of Samosata of a young nobleman who fell madly in love with the statue, and ended up all night in temple – in the morning there was a stain on the thigh of the statue. The young man was so ashamed he threw himself off a nearby cliff into the sea. The stain remained for many years.
This statue of Aphrodite was lost, possibly in the Great Fire of Rome in 476 AD, but by then the Romans had made many copies of it – so it is pretty certain that we know that this is what Phryne looked like, and that careful measurements of her proportions were then used in much classical sculpture, and art and copied by Renaissance artists and Romantic painters as an ideal of
feminine beauty. Many more recent narrative paintings and sculptures depict the Trial of Phryne, which was well documented. She was accused of impiety, or of being outspoken about the Eleusinian mysteries – a yearly ritual to commemorate the abduction of Persephone – whatever she did or said it meant the death sentence – so it is said that Hypereides, her defence council – sensing that the trial was not going her way, yanked her robes from her exposing her breasts to the judges – who subsequently acquitted her – but then again, there is another account of the trial that doesn’t include this bit of information – so it may well have been a later dramatic embellishment.
Talking of the male gaze, I want to briefly mention Artemisia Gentileschi as she is a fascination, and there are stories to tell. Although not a muse – she was a very rare famous female artist. She modelled for herself… Born 1593 – losing her mother age 12, working alongside her artist father, working in Florence, Rome and Naples – and London – her first major work, created when she was still a teenager – Susannah and the Elders – the male gaze – and the famous decapitation of Saint John – maybe both connected to her being raped age 17 and the subsequent trial in which she testified – and was subjected to torture by thumbscrew – a sort of early lie detector… But she doesn’t quite fit with this talk, so I’ll move on.
My next muse is Dame Emma Hamilton – Lady Hamilton – most famously the mistress of Lord Nelson.
She was born Amy Lyon, in 1765 daughter or a blacksmith, and brought up by her Grandmother in Wales, though by age 12 she was working in London as an under-nursemaid, then in a number of other positions including for a doctor, a composer, acting at the Dury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, working for a Mrs Kelly who ran a brothel, as a model and dancer for a quack doctor sexologist who offered couples a ‘celestial state bed’. By the age of 15 she was dancing naked on the dining table one Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, to
entertain his friends at a stag do – and she had a daughter by him, but also met a more suitable suitor at his parties called Charles Greville (not that Greville ever planned to marry her, as she had no status or money) but he devised his own money making scheme by commissioning a series of paintings from his friend the painter George Romney, who totally fell for Emma . She became his muse and he did thousands of drawings and at least 60 paintings, making her famous in contemporary society. Romney was heartbroken when Charles Grenville tired of her, having met a rich heiress, the Hon Henrietta Willougby, so needing Emma (and her mother and daughter, who were living with them) out of the way. He sent her to ‘holiday’ with his uncle Sir William Hamilton, who was the British Envoy to Naples – he was 62, she was 18. In his letter to his uncle he wrote that she was “the only woman he had slept with without offending his senses, and a cleaner, sweeter bed-fellow did not exist”- Her little girl was sent back to her grandmother in Wales.
A heartbroken Romney continued to create paintings of her based on his drawings. There is also a suggestion that George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ was partly based on her life – although obviously the myth of the Greek sculptor Pygmalion falling in love with his creation was the main inspiration – Men creating controlling and owning women… doll brothel… Emma was a very clever young woman, and a fast learner – although uneducated, she quickly taught herself several European languages, and how to pass as the lady she became when William Hamilton married her. She befriended the sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen Maria Carolina the wife of Ferdinand I of Naples, and became a talented amateur opera singer – although she turned down an offer from the Royal Opera in Madrid to sing for a season. Instead she devised her own ‘act’ which she called ‘Attitudes’ basically inventing tableaux vivants – a living picture of a famous classical painting or sculpture – an ancestor of the living statues one sees in Covent Garden and on Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Also known as mimoplastic art, combining classical poses with a degree of risqué exposure, in flowing drapes and robes – a sort of hybrid of posture, dance and acting – and also a bit like a charade, as the audience guessed at the classical scenes that she was portraying.
Apparently Johann Wolfgang von Goethe saw her perform and wrote – “The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before. With a few scarves and shawls she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations. One pose after another without a break”. Emma moved on – meeting Lord Nelson, who fell totally in love with her – by now older and a bit plump, but still beautiful and voluptuous, if a bit sharp tempered and course – they were besotted with each other, and they had a daughter – Horatia, although still only Nelsons mistress – he wouldn’t leave his wife – but she lived well, threw huge parties for him, doing up his house in
London. On his death, although he left both Emma and Horatia a large legacy, this was ignored by the authorities. They didn’t let her sing at his funeral, as she had wished, and while she tried to continue her lavish lifestyle after his death, she fell into debt, started drinking heavily and taking laudanum – and died in France age 49, in relative obscurity l, old before her years – and ultimately
a victim of the hierarchical and patriarchal society in which she lived.
My next subject is Elizabeth Siddall, painter, poet and Pre-Raphaelite muse. born into what might be termed a working class family in Hatton Garden in 1829. She didn’t go to school, but was taught to read and write by her parents, and developed an early love of poetry though reading Tennyson. From her mid teens she was working in a millinery shop, and there is a story that it is she who, keen to develop her artistic skills, approached the father of Walter Deverell, a well known artist on the fringes of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. Walter used Lizzie, as she was known, in one of his paintings, and introduced her to others in his circle – Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.
The PRB were seeking to move away from the then established idealised representation of figure and landscape, and seek to go back to nature, and to a realistic representation of figures painstakingly painted from life. They were delighted to find Lizzie as a model, as she was not the conventional beauty of the time – indeed considered plain looking, too skinny and her red hair was not in fashion. It is quite possible the PRB paintings changed societies ideal of feminine beauty. She posed for Millais’s painting of Ophelia, lying in a bath for many hours at a time. He was pretty obsessed – he painted the landscape behind the figure from a spot beside the Hogsmill River in Ewell – working up to 11 hours a day six days a week for five months – as the weather got colder he erected a shelter to work in. He then painted Lizzie over the winter months in his studio in London, buying a second hand dress for her to pose in ( for £4, which must have been quite a price – Lizzie at the time had been earning £24 a year as a shop assistant). The water was kept warm with oil lamps under the bath – but in one session they went out – the obsessed Millais didn’t notice, and Lizzie didn’t complain – and ended up with a severe cold, and a doctor’s bill of £50 that her father insisted Millais pay. She was pretty sickly after this – possibly tuberculosis, a gut disorder, or maybe an eating disorder.
Just to digress for a while – around this time Millais was commissioned to paint a portrait of the famous art critic and patron John Ruskin, spending a summer by a waterfall in Scotland – and fell totally in love with Ruskin’s wife Effie. Effie posed for another of his paintings, and amid much scandal, left John for John – successfully claiming that her marriage to Ruskin should be nullified because it had never been consummated. There is a suggestion that Ruskin was put off by her pubic hair – he would have faired better today. From what I read he had rather over protective parents. In later life he became a bit obsessed with one of his students, 10 year old Rose La Touche, and proposed marriage to her when she reached 18 – but her family contacted Effie, and decided it wasn’t a good plan… Meanwhile Effie and Millais went on to have 8 children. Effie was also an artist and poet – but I can’t find any examples of her work. Millais is also said to have become rather too attracted to Effie’s younger sister Sophy when she was still a child – he painted
several portraits of her, but Effie protected her. Sophy was anorexic, and died young. Effie was also an artist and poet in her own right – but I can’t find any examples of her work – but she had 8 children to launch.
Lizzie however, was defiantly an artist and poet. Not too long after meeting Rossetti, Ruskin, much impressed with her work, bought it all, and continued to buy everything she created, with a annual payment of £150. Although she posed for several of the PRB – and was earning enough through posing to go part time and then leave the shop altogether – she ended up posing exclusively for Rossetti – who is known to have done thousands of drawings of her as well as tutoring her in Art. He became obsessed with Lizzie both as muse and lover – they were besotted with each other – calling each other nicknames such as dove and gug – although this doesn’t seem to have stopped him chasing other women – even married women.
Lizzie took herself off to Sheffield to study art, while Rossetti, and others of the PRB were creating an Arthurian themed mural in Oxford, and met a beautiful young woman – Jane Burden – at a Dury Lane theatre company show, and persuaded her to model for them. Without this introduction Jane would most probably have gone into service like her mother, but she was bright and talented, taught herself piano and became an expert in classical music, learned to speak like a queen, and became a very well respected embroiderer and leading light of the arts and crafts movement for which William Morris was the famous champion. Jane is another contender for inspiration for Shaw’s Pygmalion. Jane later married Morris, but for years also had a relationship with Rossetti. Another of Rossetti’s models, muses and lovers was Fanny Carnforth, also of low birth, and thus disapproved of – later after Lizzie’s death, Rossetti got around this by calling her his housekeeper – though in private he called her his elephant, and he her rhinoceros.
Lizzie was ill for quite a long time, quite possibly due to the stress of living with Rossetti, and the probability that he was always on the lookout for a younger and more beautiful model – he had affairs with several of his models as well as Fanny.
Like Emma Hamilton before her Lizzie became addicted to Laudanum, which quite possibly led to the still birth of her first child, and serious postpartum depression, and she died by overdose, leaving a note pinned to her chest asking Rossetti to look after her brother Harry – which he destroyed, as suicide was against the law and would have prevented a christian burial. There is no mention of him looking after Harry – too busy looking after Fanny. He was still hopelessly in love with Lizzie, painting one of his most famous paintings of her after her death, Beta Beatrix – based on the many drawings he had made – and burying a hand written book of his poetry in her grave with her – although 7 years later he was persuaded to dig it up so that the poems could be published.
Perhaps the most famous among the generation of British artists that followed the PRB was the society portrait painter Augustus John. As with Rossetti, and so many male artists in history – Picasso, Lucian Freud, Eric Gill, Diego Rivera (Married to Frida Khalo) – the list is a long one – being a successful male artist seems to be synonymous with also being a womenizer – what a funny term… Freud had 12 illegitimate children by 4 mistresses, Picasso is famous for falling totally in love with his women and then discarding them cruelly, and there is lots of controversy around Gill that I won’t go into.
Augustus John is rumoured to have fathered 100 children, and he raped a young Caitlin Thomas – whom he later introduced to Dylan Thomas – in his belief that it was his right, given that he was painting her portrait, that this was acceptable. At the time she was keen on his son Casper – although she was in her early teens and Casper already in his twenties, so Augustus would have been 40 years her senior, or there about. Augustus lived for years in a ménage à trois with his wife Ida Nettleship and his bohemian mistress Dorelia McNeill. Unlike the ménage à trois between Jane and William Morris and Rossetti, John was pretty open about his relationships – travelling the country for a while in a gypsy caravan with both women and a multitude of children.
Augustus’s sister Gwen was arguably as talented as he – but she was a woman, and therefore did not get the same chances of fame and fortune. In some ways she led quite a quiet life, latterly almost a hermit in rural France. For a while though, she was the muse and lover of another famous philandering artist – Rodin.
But it is not Gwen who I will go on to next, it is another of Rodin’s mistresses, Camille Claudel. Camille displayed a passion for sculpture from a young age, creating figures from the local clay, but her mother discouraged her, not rating art as any sort of occupation for a young woman. Her father was more supportive, and moved the family to Paris, where she entered one of the only art
schools at the time to accept women, and allow them to work from naked male models. She later shared a studio space with and became friends with three English women also at the college
The father of one owned a bronze foundry in Frome, which she visited. There is no doubt that she was an exceptional talent, The writer and art critic Octave Mirbeau described her as “A revolt against nature: a woman genius”. She was introduced to Rodin by her art teacher with the idea that she become his apprentice, but inevitably they fell in love and a tumultuous affair followed, lasting a decade, where they fed from each others energy and passion. But Rodin would not leave his wife of 20 years, He wouldn’t live with her, and possibly gradually began to feel professionally threatened by her talent, especially after she ended the sexual aspect of their relationship after becoming pregnant and submitting to an abortion.
She ceased to get commissions – perhaps because Rodin suppressed and harried her progress, or perhaps because of the vigorous and overtly sexual nature of her work, which was too daring to meet the conservative taste of the time. Rodin may have allowed people to believe that some of her work was his own – he certainly signed some of her work, although this was acceptable at the time as she was his apprentice. Her sculpture ‘The Mature Age’ certainly shocked him, and he ceased his patronage, although she also went a bit mad at this time, destroying most her own work, and accusing Rodin of stealing her ideas and conspiring to murder her.
At age 30 her mother and younger brother had her sectioned and locked away in an asylum which is where she lived in ignominy for 30 years till her death – her mother never visited her, her brother visited 7 times in 30 years, her sister once. and despite the fact that various other visitors claimed that she didn’t seem mentally ill at all, and the hospitals and doctors suggested that she wasn’t ill and should leave, she spent the rest of her life institutionalised.
My next muse also lived and died in relative poverty, with little recognition of her genius. She was born Elsa Plötz in Germany in 1874.
She ran away from home to train as an actress in vaudeville and had many affairs with various artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy before a rather short lived open marriage which disintegrated acrimoniously when she fell for a friend of her husband while the three of them were on holiday in Sicily. She subsequently married this friend and ended up on a Kentuckian farm, having helped him fake his suicide in order to dodge debts. But he left her for another farm further west, and she gradually headed east, posing for artists, developing her poetry, and ending up in Greenwich Village, New York, where she was a model for various artists including the photographer Man Ray. In New York she married Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven – and thus became Elsa Hildegarde Baroness Von Freytag-Loringhoven. She became very involved in the New York Dada movement, alongside artists such as Marcel
Duchamp and Francis Picabia. Part of the reason her art didn’t reach a wider audience – apart from her gender – was its ephemeral nature – mostly based on her own body, incorporating poetry, dance, found objects, and ‘bodily leaks and smells’. She shaved and painted her head and body, stuck postage stamps to her cheeks, hung spoons from her ears, wore tin can bras, flashing lights, and incorporated rags, road kill, live animals and birds and all sorts of found objects into her costumes, and performed sound poems and weird dances in this garb. Her poetry is forthright and explicit – she was highly unconventional in many ways – blurring the distinctions between male and female, between art and life, but keeping agency over her own exposure.
In her studio she collected all sorts of detritus from the streets, and turned this into sculpture – creating readymades before Duchamp invented the term. His famous ‘Urinal’ which changed the course of conceptual art in the 20th century, was probably her work – she used the name Richard Mutt.
Other surviving bits of junk sculpture incorporating bits of plumbing and sanitary-ware are now thought to be her work – having previously been attributed to contemporary male artists. She would definitely have relished the masculine connotation of a urinal – and I like the idea of her ‘taking the piss’.
The painter George Biddle, for whom she posed, said of her studio “It was crowded and reeking with strange relics, which she had purloined over a period of years from the New York gutters. Old bits of ironware, automobile tires, gilded vegetables, a dozen starved dogs, celluloid paintings, ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitised perception, became objects of formal beauty.” She made advances to Duchamp which were rejected – and later referred to him in her poem ‘Graveyard surrounding Nunnery’ as Marcel Dushit, illustrated with a drawing of penises intertwined with gravestones.
The baroness never made money from her work, lived in poverty – was often caught shoplifting, and arrested for wearing mens clothing, then was seen jumping from the backs of patrol wagons. Most of her work disappeared, returned to rubbish, or rotted, and her collected poetry was not published until 2011 – along with a biography in which the author writes “the Baroness’s erotic and embodied approach to art in everyday life was vital, chaotic, and fundamentally perishable. She was the living consequence of challenging the nature of art in society.” She died in Paris age 53 due to a gas leak – she might just have forgotten to turn off the gas tap.
My final model and muse in Elizabeth Miller, known as Lee – whose life and work, though very different from Elsa’s, has certain parallels – she was model and muse to Man Ray, her work was only collected and published after her death, and her creative energy was to an extent subjugated to her male peers. Lee was born in Poughkeepsie, New York. Her father was an amateur photographer, and photographed her clothed and naked, from an early age and into her late teens. She was raped age 7 while staying with a family friend, and caught very painful gonorrhoea. She was expelled from most of her schools, but age 18 moved to Paris to study lighting and and costume design, and a year later life drawing and painting at an art school in New York – where she was saved from
stepping in front of a car by the publisher of Vogue, and quickly became a supermodel – having the perfect ‘modern’ look.
For a couple of years she was hugely sought after, modelling for many famous photographers including Edward Steichen – until one of his photos of her was used, without permission, for a sanitary wear advert – and this effectively ended her modelling career.
She did some illustration and artwork for advertising agencies, and a bit more modelling, but became keener on being the other side of a camera, so she moved to Paris to seek out Man Ray, and become his assistant – which she did, after a bit of pestering. She then became his lover and muse – he was besotted by her… same old story.
Some of his most famous photographic discoveries, such as solarisation, were actually hers – and lots of the fashion photography that bears his name was done by her as his assistant, while he got on with his painting. She became well known in Paris art circles, with Picasso, and Surrealist artists such as Paul Éluard and Jean Cocteau, who coated her in butter and posed her as a classical sculpture in one of his films. She got pretty cross with Man Ray for purloining her work, moved back to New York, and set up a successful photography studio, but she gave this up a few years later when she married a rich Egyptian businessman and moved to Cairo as a women of leisure. But being a wife in Egypt was too boring, so she moved back to Paris, back into the circle of the Surrealists, and met the English artist Roland Penrose. In the second world war she started a new career as a photojournalist for Vogue, teaming up with another American photographer David Scherman, and landing in France a month after D day – recording the first use of napalm, the liberation of Paris, documenting the death and destruction,
and it’s effect on ordinary and displaced people. She was one of the first people to enter Buchenwald and Dachau.
There is a very famous photograph taken by David of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich, washing off the muck of the concentration camps, with her muddy boots on his white bath mat. She took a similar photo of him, but it is not as famous. This was on the day that Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Although she continued to work for Vogue after the war, she suffered from PTSD, drank lots, got pregnant, and was generally pretty miserable. She married Penrose, and he bought a house in Sussex, where she felt isolated and more miserable still. She remained here for the rest of her life – reinventing herself as a gourmet chef, and cooking
expertly for many guests – including most of the famous artists of the time. Her depression might have been accelerated by Roland’s affair with a trapeze artist… She died aged 70, relatively unknown, with 60 thousand negatives boxed up in her attic. We only know of her work through the efforts of her son Anthony who has spent a lifetime cataloging conserving and promoting her work. Farley Farm is well worth a visit – as is nearby Charlton House – the home of the Bells – but that would be another whole set of stories…”
by Ross Wallis