Monday, 19 October 2009

I am Chloe

I was painted in Paris by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, the leading nude figure artist of the day. The famed Parisian model, Marie, posed for me. She died at 22, under sordid circumstances, but I am more than a hundred years old and as beautiful as ever.

I was an overnight sensation when I debuted at the Paris Salon of 1875. Lefebvre got the Gold Medal of Honour for me, the highest official award bestowed upon a French artist.

This success was followed by more acclaim as I featured as the central figure in the French Gallery at the Sydney International Exhibition, and then at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. On both occasions, I claimed the highest honours, and a growing group of admirers.

I did not go back to Paris, because I was purchased by a Melbourne doctor, Sir Thomas Fitzgerald, for the sum of 850 guineas. Fitzgerald loaned me to the National Gallery of Victoria in 1883 while he was on an extended visit to Ireland. Here my dishabille caused a sensation.

While I was recognised by the critics as superb, the general public of Melbourne was scandalised by the open display of a nude woman in a public place. My most vehement opposition came from the Presbyterian Assembly, who were outraged because I would be on view on Sundays. Protest meetings, letters and sermons followed. After a stormy three weeks, I was withdrawn from public exhibition in Melbourne, and sent to Adelaide. (The City of Churches! … whose brilliant idea was that?)

When the doctor returned to Melbourne, I remained in his private home for 21 years. At first passers-by complained that they could see me through the windows of his front room: Fitzgerald was forced to move me to a more private area of the house. What were they doing peering through his windows, anyway?

Upon Fitzgerald's death, I was purchased at auction for £800 by Norman Figsby Young, an ex-prospector turned art collector. He was the publican of Young & Jackson's Hotel. Henry took me back to his home above the hotel, but his deeply disapproving wife banished me to the public bar, where I charm the patrons to this day. During World War I toured Australia to raise funds for the Red Cross.

In 1995 I was on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for a special exhibition: "Narratives, nudes and landscapes". Also in the exhibition, on loan, was "La Cigale", another nude by Lefebvre. In May 2005 the NGV bought "La Cigale" from the estate of her Melbourne owner, and she is now on public display at the NGV International.

It is nice to know that I have a sister just down the road – even though I have been in Australia for more than a century, I am still a French girl and sometimes I get homesick. I am able to visit her from time to time, when I am on loan to the NGV for special exhibitions. In 2004 I had to go to the NGV's conservation centre for repair when a bar patron broke my glass and scratched me.

Marie, who modelled for me, was only 19 when the rotter Lefebvre painted her. She fell madly in love with him at the time. He didn't knock her favours back either and you only have to look me to see why not!

He strung her along for a while and then he dropped her and took up with another model. The poor girl was devastated, but she didn't do anything as lame as drowning herself or pining away like other lovelorn Victorian maidens! No, she boiled up phosphorous match-heads, and drank the resultant poisonous brew at a dinner party to which she had invited Jules, his new girlfriend and all their friends, dying in convulsive agony. That showed them!

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

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