Sunday, 13 July 2014

How To Live Forever

Mary Cassatt frequently used Sara,
a little girl form her local village,
as a model.
Never mind the Philosopher's Stone. The road to immortality lies through the palette of a great painter. The models of the Masters live for centuries.
Sometimes the models are anonymous: Carvaggio chose his models from the streets of Rome – the saints we see, may be pickpockets or prostitutes or respectable citizens: we'll never know the stories behind the faces that look at us across a five hundred year gulf.
Rembrandt: Two Old Men Disputing
NGV, Melbourne
Some nameless regulars we come to recognise, like the old man who sat for St Peter in Rembrandt's Two Old Men Disputing, a treasure of the NGV. Both Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with whom he shared a studio in Leiden, used the old bearded guy numerous times – he is always popping up in their work as various saints, apostles and prophets. Walk into any great art museum that has a Rembrandt or a Lievens, and you are likely to spot the venerable patriarch. He was probably just an old pensioner from the almshouse down the road, making a few stuivers by posing for the lads in the studio … little did he know that his real wage was not the few coins, but immortality.
Suzanne Valadon (Renoir)
Suzanne Valadon (Renoir)
Many of the models of the Impressionists have colourful stories. Suzanne Valadon was both a model and an accomplished painter in her own right.  She started her career as a circus performer, but after a bad fall, she took to modelling.  She was a favourite model of Renoir, who painted her many times. Degas encouraged her to paint and gave her lessons.

The job description of Model To The Impressionists did seem to include bedmate-duties. Suzanne is the mother of the painter Maurice Utrillo, but his paternity is uncertain. She told Miguel Utrillo, a Spanish artist for whom she had also posed, that she was pregnant but that she was unsure who the father was. He willingly signed a legal document acknowledging paternity, saying 'I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!'

Symphony in White
Jo Hiffernan, "La Belle Irlandaise", was 'n beautiful Irish woman who modelled for some of Whistler's most famous paintings, notably the Symphony in White. She was his mistress for years, until he left her for a younger model (as they do). This was Maud Franklin, by whom Whistler had two daughters, leaving her in the lurch when she was pregnant with the second child. Still, perhaps the distress she suffered was worth it: still pretty after 150 years, Maud lives on in the Freer Gallery in Washington, as  Arrangement in White and Black.
Arrangement in Black and White
After Whistler left Jo, she kindheartedly took in and raised his son Charles, who was the issue of a brief fling he had with Louisa Hanson, a parlour maid. Not exactly a prince among men, Whistler, for all that he loved his mum.
Les Dormeuses (The Sleepers)
Gustave Courbet
Jo went on to model for (and sleep with) Gustave Courbet. She was the model for two of Courbet's most famous works, Les Dormeuses and The Origin of the World.  Both were notorious at the time: the former because of its lesbian theme, and the latter because it is a close-up of Jo's nether parts. They are no eyebrow raisers today – you can see much worse on the internet any time you like. And, sadly, so can your ten-year-old.
The Origin of the World
(Gustave Courbet)
Marie was a Parisienne model who was famous enough at the time to be known by only the one name, like Madonna or Cher. She was nineteen when Jules-Joseph Lefebvre used her as the model for Melbourne's iconic Chloe. He also seduced her and then abandoned her, moving on to new conquests. Marie died at 21 in distressing circumstances, but as Chloe she graces the walls of Young and Jackson's, still full of charm and beauty after 150 years.

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