Women in Art


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It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen this woman before. Anyone with the slightest introduction to Renaissance art knows Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus. With her spiraled hair, her sly look, her curved belly and hips, she is, in many ways, an iconic representation of the goddess of love and beauty.

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. 240 pages. Plume. $15.
  • Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cezanne, Money, and Rodin by Ruth Butler. 376 pages. Yale University Press. $35.
  • Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice by Gunnar Heydenreich. 462 pages. Amsterdam University Press. $69.50.
  • The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art by Wendy Steiner. 232 pages. University of Chicago Press. $32.50.


But there was something about this visit to see the Cranach paintings, when I saw her — really saw her — for the first time. Here she was as Venus. Over in the corner, the same woman was portraying Eve, lazily rolling an apple around in her hand, without the shame and guilt an Eve portrait typically carries. In the next room she was bathing in the fountain of youth, and she was even in Cranach’s copy of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic scenes. He slid her into the paradise, not on the side where humans are being peeled and eaten by monkey insect creatures.

Who the hell was she? With her capacity to portray innocence with a devilish smile (Eve), maternal sexiness (Venus with Cupid), the personification of one of the Graces, and youth and regeneration, she had to have been quite the woman, and I wanted to get to know her.

As one does, I went to the books to find an answer, but what I found was vague at best. She is maybe Christiana Eulenau, who Cranach also paints as herself. But knowing the name of a 16th century woman does not tell us much, unfortunately. When I couldn’t find confirmation or any back story in Cranach biographies, I sent an email to Dr. Gunnar Heydenreich, who wrote Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice and contributed a piece on Cranach to Temptation in Eden. (There she is again on the cover! Boldly handing over that apple to a dull, befuddled Adam.) “Little is known about the model(s) for Cranach’s Eva, Venus and Co,” he tells me. It’s been the subject of academic research before, but no one has emerged with any definitive conclusions. No one knows who this marvelous woman is.

The better question to be asking was perhaps, Why did I want to know? Maybe she was a fascinating creature, or maybe she was an illiterate dullard. Maybe she had an interest in the arts, or maybe she just needed a little extra cash. I fixated on the swell of her belly in the Venus paintings and wondered if she had given birth in the past, or perhaps she was newly pregnant. Or maybe Cranach was just bad at painting abdomens — he wasn’t always successful with other body parts such as feet, after all.

My interest perhaps lies in the fact that we are all participating in the Post-Feminist Anonymous Woman Reclamation Act. For centuries, it was men who defined women. Male painters showed us what women look like. Male poets and novelists told us how they feel, what they think, what they desire. Some of it, of course, was a more successful ventriloquist act than others. But now that women have a voice and an audience, and access to writing utensils and art supplies and their own bank accounts and their own rooms, it’s not enough simply to tell the story of what women now think and feel, what they look like, what they desire. From novels narrated by Captain Ahab’s wife to investigations into unrecognized and uncredited female lab assistants, women writers and scholars feel they have to go back in time, revise the written record, re-feminize all of those male voices coming out of female mouths.

And no place has as many compelling, silent female mouths as the art museum. Since many of the models didn’t even leave behind names, any sort of back story can easily be filled in. That is why we have such things as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. You probably remember the novel; it was everywhere for a while. Your mother probably read it. Or maybe you remember the movie, in which the only interesting performance was achieved by the living creature that sat upon Colin Firth’s head and pretended to be hair. In Chevalier’s hands, the anonymous woman in the Vermeer painting becomes Griet, a young servant who turns out to be Vermeer’s spiritual equal. She sits for the painting because she truly understands Vermeer’s art in a way his wife never can — she assists him, mixes his paint, adjusts the objects in the room for a more harmonious alignment. She could have been a great artist, but because of the limitations of the time, blah blah blah. It’s possible my cynicism is wrong, that this book was an accurate portrayal. Maybe the real girl in the painting had a natural gift that was squandered and maybe heavily symbolic and metaphorical things happened to her all the time. But the book is just another parroting act, and the author does not seem surprised to find that what comes out of the mouth of this silent girl is a modern feminist voice.

I’m sitting here with Ruth Butler’s 2008 book Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cezanne, Monet, and Rodin and I am feeling argumentative. Butler tries to flesh out the lives of these women so recognizable in their husbands’ art, but from whom the barest bones of an identity were left behind: a letter or two, an official document announcing a birth or marriage, an anecdote in a friend’s diary. Butler recreates their lives by examining the standard life in 19th-century Paris for a young woman of such deprived socio-economic backgrounds and transferring the information to the wives. But she defaults perhaps too often to honor and intelligence. When she needs to imagine a scene — which she must do frequently, as none of these women left behind a memoir or a large cache of letters — she imagines the woman acting with honor first, or speculates on the quiet strength with which they endured. But men, even great men, sometimes do not marry their equals. I have seen them at dinner parties, great writers who get tense when their wives start to speak. The hand of the great man grasps his wife’s after only a sentence or two with a “You are only embarrassing yourself” gesture. But Butler is defensive about these women. She wants to believe the best about them, and the result is a book that feels like an over-correction.

I understand the impulse to restore dignity to the model wives, the defensiveness that rises when a woman unable to speak for herself is denigrated. Everyone hates the wife. The mistress is adored by the artist, the circle of friends, the biographer. She is allowed to be airy and inspiring and delightful. The mistress takes away the burdens of reality to unloose the artist’s imagination while the wife is earthy and anchors his creativity with responsibility and daily life. She hems in, she restricts, she requires money and attention. Even Tracy Chevalier makes this mistake, portraying Vermeer’s wife as vain and greedy, as well as an artistic blockhead. The chaste mistress Griet is solace and escape itself. However, if the symbolic act of piercing her ear had been the literal breaking of her hymen, and she had gotten knocked up, that airiness she brought Vermeer would have disappeared real fast.

Previous biographers of Cézanne accused his wife Hortense of neglecting his death bed because she did not want to miss a dressmaker’s appointment. She’s been referred to as a gold digger and an intellectual lightweight who didn’t understand her husband’s art. Camille Monet was, for a while, completely erased from the record altogether. Her portrait “Camille” — which caused a sensation when it debuted — was renamed “The Woman in the Green Dress.” It’s not just painters. I read Anthony Daniels in the New Criterion accuse John Stuart Mill’s wife Harriet Taylor — who Mill credited with much of the inspiration and logic behind The Subjection of Women — of being a “dominatrix,” “repellent,” and “reptilian.” He claimed she abused Mill, that she controlled him and broke his will. Sofia Tolstoy, before the recent publication of her diaries and the rehabilitation of her image that followed, endured decades of being thought a fool and a drain on Leo’s resources. Because so few of these women were able to leave much behind — an account of their suffering, a description of a life tethered to a genius who would spend the grocery money on paint or give away their children’s inheritance — those who idolize their husbands feel free to create their own reality for them. Butler’s book on its own can be frustrating. But taken in context, Hidden in the Shadow of the Master offers a corrective to all of the artists’ biographers who assume the worst about the wives and take the artists’ sides in all arguments.

From the 19th century to the present, the role of the model changed considerably. No longer an anonymous, usually nude, woman, nor the much beleaguered wife of artist posing between housework and childrearing, she is now a free agent. In Wendy Steiner’s new book The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art, she reflects on a recent spate of novels narrated by models, from Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me to Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica. “Almost without exception, these works depict a model’s need to be recognized as an agent in her own right, exercising power over her representation.” When the artist behaves as tyrant rather than as a collaborator, all of that being looked at, posed like a doll, and used as a prop takes its toll. The fictional characters are on a quest to find and project their voice from behind the silent image. Steiner uses Dani Shapiro’s Black and White as an illustration.

Shapiro’s narrator is the daughter of a celebrated photographer, one who used her children in various states of undress as her primary models. The whole thing is an obvious parallel to Sally Mann, whose photos of her children lounging around the house naked, of skinny dips in the lake near their house, of their cuts and scrapes and bruises that come with a typical childhood, made her a star. Shapiro imagines the daughter who posed for such photos as feeling violated and broken. She runs away from home, all damaged and adrift. She wants to tell her own story, her own way — in Shapiro’s voice.

In the new collection of Sally Mann’s work The Flesh and the Spirit, I am captivated by the 1991 photograph of her son, “Bloody Nose.” He is shirtless, outdoors, his torso smeared with the blood pouring from his nose, his hand full of it. He radiates fragility and resilience. He can’t be older than 11, but you see his masculinity emerging, the pride and shock of all that blood. A few pages later, Mann’s young daughter Virginia is mostly nude, except for a temporary tattoo on her chest, sprawled out in low light, blissfully asleep. I wonder how I would feel if my childhood were so captured, if my awkwardness and nudity had been recorded and projected onto the walls of New York City galleries and sold for thousands of dollars to be displayed in the private homes of the wealthy. I wonder if I would feel broken and violated, if I would draw parallels between my mother’s photography and rape.

The thing is, we don’t have to imagine what Mann’s daughter feels. We can ask her. She is not some 19th-century French peasant in need of others to speak for her. Her name is Jessie and she is now a professional model, writer, and artist. Her writing and her interviews blaze with intelligence. There’s a wonderful photo of her adult self in The Flesh and the Spirit, looking strong and solid. In a 2007 interview, she says, “When the flap about my mother’s work occurred what shocked me most was that the public rarely thought to assume that we might have really enjoyed make art with our mother.” In Shapiro’s novel, her fictionalized version of Jessie, named Clara, has to recover her selfhood, has to participate in that Post-Feminist Anonymous Woman Reclamation Act of her own being. But in order to do that, Clara first has to be a victim, struggling toward some New Age version of autonomy. Steiner calls this no big improvement on the way men used to imagine women, “the replacement of a traditional misogynistic plot with what has become a pop-feminist cliche.” Jessie Mann, in that same interview, continues: “It is our fallback position when considering the individual turned character to assume some sort of tragedy or even some sort of danger to the spirit.” Models may come with voices now, but sometimes we forget to ask. Or maybe we just don’t like what we hear.

Representational art was out of vogue for so long that the word model became attached to the world of fashion almost entirely. There is always a moment on every season of America’s Next Top Model when the contestants realize that modeling is about more than dressing in flouncy clothes and looking pretty in front of a photographer. That perfection is not a virtue. That you actually have to have a life and bring it onto the set with you. It’s a moment of disillusionment, and you see it written on their faces. But the heyday of the supermodel is fading, and the backlash to the extensive airbrushing and Photoshopping that goes into turning a photograph of a flawed (read as: human) woman into a cover image is growing. The silent fantasy of the model is being replaced by actresses who may not be representational of the common woman, but they are at least interviewed and allowed to speak (through the publicity filter). In the art world, models are also telling their own story, from Jessie Mann to the handful of memoirs written by those who have worked as life models at schools or for specific artists. Some of their books are predictably vain and shallow, but the fact that their lips match their voice, that nothing is being dubbed in, is in fact an improvement.

Now that women have their own voices and can account for their own lives, how have things changed? After decades of women artists using their own selves as their model — from Freida Kahlo to Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramović to Helena Almeida — Steiner believes that we are now allowed to see representational art as a collaboration rather than an act of control. By changing the role of the model, our ideas of beauty have proven to be surprisingly malleable. Steiner writes that we have encountered a shift, and in the West we are “replacing beauty as formal perfection with beauty as enriching interaction… A revolution is under way in the general understanding of beauty.”

There’s always been an interest in finding the three dimensional behind the two dimensional portrait. As I continued to talk to the Cranach scholar Gunnar Heydenreich, I realized it had never occurred to me that there might not even be a woman to identify in the paintings. “Maybe sometimes speculation about the identity of the sitter was even intended and left ambiguous by purpose,” he wrote me. “I do not think that there was one particular model for Cranach’s Eve and Venus paintings. A combination of different studies of heads and bodies as well as their free variation seems more likely. In the case of Cranach it would be hard if not impossible to restore their identities.” Just as likely: any attempt to do so would only end up being unfair to whoever modeled for those paintings.

About a month ago, I sat for a Croatian artist. It was just a few sketches, nothing major. We sat across from one another and chatted about various places we had traveled while she worked. I worried I was being boring. I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. I had problems meeting her gaze. When it was over, after what felt like forever, she showed me the result. I was startled. “I look so sad,” I told her. She frowned. “Not sad, I don’t think. Dreamy.” She explained, “You were always looking down.” It wasn’t so much the difference in opinion about how I looked — it was the sudden realization that at this point my image and myself were two separate beings. If this were ever to be displayed, I would not be next to it, explaining I am not a naturally sad person, but this is just what my face does. It was an odd sensation, but I was able to walk away from it. Somewhere in the world is a sketch of my face. And if it’s selected for the show my artist friend was accumulating material for, people are going to see it, and they might assume a voice for it. It won’t be my voice, just a voice, and I decided I was OK with that. • 24 January 2011