From Franz Marc to steel blue, burgundy, woman

Picasso, Femme nue au bras levé, 1909, Musée Picasso, ParisI have often in mind how one summer (1907) the young Picasso left his girlfriend in their upstairs apartment and hid out in the basement drawing and drawing. It is said that he made some 700 sketches, on his way to the breakthrough which we know of as Les demoiselles d’Avignon. I have a book containing a few dozen of these sketches, and while there are some striking ones, the overall sense is of doodling, of an artist working within his own mind, trying to let something unknown out.

Often I think that I am in the process of making (with less dramatic result!) my 700 sketches, and this though I have no basement (or girlfriend raging on a higher floor), and although I have never been a doodler. My drawing is always of an external something: a model, a landscape, a still life, a photograph of another artist’s work.

Returned from a long vacation (a true vacation, not drawing or writing as I went), I have wanted to do some unknown to me, yet new kind of work. While walking around Paris I had sketched a few lines of a short poem. After I got home, in two days—6 hours the first and 4 hours the second—I worked and reworked these lines until I got to something stable—the painting, let’s call it: the poem Au Palais-Royal, Paris, 2019. (As with many of my short poems these days, it’s in three versions or voices: French, English and Spanish.) So my question to myself became: How might I do something like this in my artmaking—moving from one of my quick charcoal sketches of a model to some sort of drawing or watercolor painting that I could rework and rework until it reached such a “stability”?

Franz Marc, Die kleinen gelben Pferde (The Little Yellow Horses), 1912; Staatsgalerie StuttgartIn Norbert Wolf’s book Expressionism I came across a reproduction of Franz Marc’s 1912 Die kleinen gelben Pferde (standard English title: The Little Yellow Horses). Wolf’s accompanying explication includes this line: Marc “never lost himself in details, and for him the animal was only one element in the whole”. Marc is quoted in translation: “We will no longer paint forests or horses in the way they appeal or appear to us, but how they really are, how a forest or a horse themselves feel, their absolute being”.

In am no neo-German-Romantic, nor seeking to elevate art into a new religion (with, say, as in Marc, each color having a symbolic meaning—blue representing “the male principle, severe and intellectual”; yellow the female, gentle, joyful, sensual . . . But, sitting outdoors—in a comfortable chair, on a lawn, near a fountain—I first made a rough (and not well drawn) version of Marc’s oil painting. And then, using some of the same tools—pastels, water-soluble color sticks, and an eraser—I made a version of one of the charcoal sketches I had done of a nude female model.

This is the “image of the week”.

William Eaton


Steel blue, burgundy, woman - drawing by William Eaton, 2019Top image: Picasso, Femme nue au bras levé, 1909, Musée Picasso, Paris. Reproduction found in Hiromi Matsui, De l’apprentissage du dessin à la naissance d’une nouvelle représentation du corps humain, Colloque Revoir Picasso, 25 mars 2015. N.B.: This sketch is from 1909, not 1907, but was chosen for how my own drawing, in color (and shown again here at right), is in some dialogue with the Picasso work.

Book: Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: Carnet de dessins, présentation par Brigitte Leal (Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1988, 1994). Published in coordination with an exhibition at the Musée Picasso in Paris, 1988.

Video: This two-minute video, a 1988 news story made available online by the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (, is in French, but shows quite a few images of Picasso’s basement sketches.

Book: Norbert Wolf, Expressionism (Taschen, 2019).

Middle image: Franz Marc, Die kleinen gelben Pferde (The Little Yellow Horses), 1912; in the collection of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Homme aux yeux mauves

Zombie eyes, self-portrait with poem, William Eaton,  2019

1: I came across an image of a Picasso painting. (See copy below. Painting from 1965.)

2: It seemed to be a kind of self-portrait (as by an older man of one of his younger selves), and I thought to follow in the master’s footsteps, setting myself up with a mirror, some gouache paints, and with this idea of using the white space of the paper for much of the face and chest.

3: My son found my treatment of the eyes (my eyes? with my new sunglasses) was too zombie-like.

4: I was going to paint in the frames of the glasses, but decided instead to lay a recent poem on top.

5 : Picasso quoted by Brassaï, Conversations avec Picasso, 1964:

Un peintre doit observer la nature, mais jamais la confondre avec la peinture. Elle n’est traduisible en peinture que par des signes. Il faut fortement viser à la ressemblance pour aboutir au signe. (A painter must observe nature, but never confuse this with painting. Nature can only be translated into painting by means of signs. You have to struggle to achieve a resemblance in order to end up with the signs.)

Picasso, Homme au maillot, 1965

When the new is exhausted or bankrupt what do we have left?

Watercolor after Morandi oil still life, by William Eaton, 2017William Rose, an English painter who lives in Italy, e-mailed that at one time he regarded Giorgio Morandi’s paintings “as ‘the end of the line’; in other words one could go no further with painting.”

I begin to hear more and more comments of this nature. For instance, the other day in New York I was touring the latest Whitney Biennial with an art historian, and she said she felt sorry for contemporary artists because everything had been done; there was nothing left to do. In my own drawing practice, I have felt that with Picasso—after such compulsive inventiveness—inventiveness, inevitably, began to burn out. This is hardly a criticism of Picasso, Morandi, the Abstract Expressionists, Pop and Conceptual artists . . . or of the contemporary artists whose work has been on view at the Whitney. It is simply that we have arrived at some place new, and we are a long ways from figuring out what it’s like and what will be its art.

Après Luca Signorelli, Nursing Madonna, oil pastel by William Eaton, 2018I would pause here to underscore the politico-economic connection. The art of the Industrial and Information revolutions served as propaganda for those phenomena; the new and different was good; the stuff and ideas of the previous generation had to be discarded or ignored in favor of this new work, these new things, which—precisely because they were newer, precisely because they rejected the old—were superior. And fated, in their turn, to be superseded by the next generation’s marvels.

But now all this compulsive energy—and what might be called a hoping against hope—has been exhausted. And this even if Silicon Valley or venture capital or even the world’s great newspapers have yet to get the news. Those who still have faith in technology are behind the times. (See D.H. Lawrence from 90 years ago, the opening sentences of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, . . . The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, . . . [T]here is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.”)

Those who think the new will save them from the terms of existence now have opportunities to glimpse what the term “terms of existence” means. We come, too, to terms with what it means to be destroying the world around us, to be exhausting our resources, and to have privileged money and consumer goods over emotional and spiritual “goods.” (Allow me to add—a note for some future text?—artists and museums are now being called upon to promote—with multinational artists merging different cultural traditions in their work—the wonder that is globalization. This merging of all financial, consumer and labor markets into one is a development which is, above all, in the interest of capital, and it includes, among its several misfortunes, the wreckage that is twenty-first century tourism.)

After Kauerndes Mädchen (crouching girl) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, watercolor by William Eaton, 2017When the new is exhausted or bankrupt what do we have left? The ruins of the old or the wonders of the old. Like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we search among the scraps of the past to try to reconnect with what we hope were better times.

And thus—grabbing wildly at a wide range of artists—we have Wendy Artin painting watercolors of Roman ruins or of naked twenty-first century models as if they were sculptural remains. We have painters like Balthus using Renaissance techniques, and, in the case, say, of John Currin, doing pastiches of Renaissance works. In the works of artists as diverse as Mark Tansey, Kara Walker, and the Indian artist Indian artist K.P. Reji we have a renewed interest in history painting. At the Biennial we even had young American artists quoting not so ancient predecessors such as Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha.

To close, I return—for fun, let’s call it—to the embittered D.H. Lawrence, now to his “Climbing down Pisgah.” It might be said that he saw the matter somewhat differently from how I have presented it above.

The Pisgah-top of spiritual oneness looks down upon a hopeless squalor of industrialism, the huge cemetery of human hopes. This is our Promised Land . . . The aeroplane descends and lays her eggshells of empty tin-cans on the top of Everest, . . . all over the North Pole; not to speak of tractors waddling across the inviolate Sahara . . . , laying the same addled eggs of our civilization . . . in every camp-nest.

— Text, drawings and paintings by William Eaton


Copy of Rembrandt's Elephant, by William Eaton, 2018[1] The text above is a slightly revised excerpt from one of the sections of an essay drafted at the request of William Balthazar Rose. The longer text is (or was?) to accompany several exhibits of his work.

[2] The drawings and paintings reproduced here are all by me, William Eaton, however, the first (at the top) is after Morandi, the second after Luca Signorelli, the third Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the fourth (the elephant), Rembrandt.

[3] Those who wish to read more of my writing about Morandi are urged to see Morandi, Relationships, Fascism, Still Life and Morandi, Bonnard and Silences Within. There’s a little more on Wendy Artin’s work at The New Shadows, Judd, Artin. Paris, Madrid, Florence, New York—Novel Collage includes a discussion of Robert Rauschenberg’s Express, 1963.

[4] For bringing me back (after 50 years!) to D.H. Lawrence, all thanks to Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950; first published by Chatto & Windus, 1958. And for bringing me back to Williams’s book, thanks to Robert Slifkin, an art historian currently teaching at NYU. Lawrence was a big reader of the Bible, and thus Mount Pisgah, from Deuteronomy 34, where the Lord says to Moses: “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

[5] And as for modern tourism, this could also bring one back to poor Lawrence, dying too young, and Lady Chatterly, in chapter 17 vacationing in Venice:

This was a holiday-place of all holiday-places. The Lido, with its acres of sun-pinked or pyjamaed bodies, was like a strand with an endless heap of seals come up for mating. Too many people in the piazza, too many limbs and trunks of humanity on the Lido, too many gondolas, too many motor-launches, too many steamers, too many pigeons, too many ices, too many cocktails, too many menservants wanting tips, too many languages rattling, too much, too much sun, too much smell of Venice, too many cargoes of strawberries, too many silk shawls, too many huge, raw-beef slices of watermelon on stalls: too much enjoyment, altogether far too much enjoyment!

[6] For more on the current Biennial and globalization, see my pastiche N’importe quoi.

Marguerite au chapeau de cuir

Après Matisse, "Marguerite au chapeau de cuir" (1914), drawing by William Eaton

Henri Matisse, I recently learned, spent six years of his art-student life copying the work of old masters. With my occasional “copy” from Matisse’s and several others’ work, I’m hardly keeping up. And I put the word “copy” in quotes because I think of my efforts more as versions, as “après” some master’s work. And I often use different materials—here water-soluble crayons—than the master did.

Both the news of the six years and a photo reproduction of the 1914 oil painting of his daughter Marguerite in a leather hat I came across in an fascinating catalog: Matisse: In search of true painting, edited by Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012).

I also recently came across a Web site entitled Matisse in his Own Words, an interesting title for a site entirely in English and thus likely containing none of Matisse’s words, these having been, presumably, in French. Also, like most every online collection of quotations, this one gave no sources for the quotes. Not as regards Matisse, but more generally, I regularly come across quotations that are attributed, without any source citations, to famous people who are extremely unlikely ever to have said or written those lines. It’s not that there’s a lot of fake news out there or that the truth has become stranger than fiction; all there is is fiction. Or, you might say, we keep throwing mud at the walls around us, and we need not be impressed that some of it sticks.

So we might like some of these “own words” not because they tell us anything about Matisse, but because they resonate with our own feelings about art-making.

The model must mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express. . . . You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté. . . . Creativity takes courage.


Poem mixed with drawing

Eaton - Poem for a warm, cold spring day (with art)Time was—and not that long ago—I thought my drawing and poetry would be knit together, and perhaps with the drawing causing words to be written on the spur of the moment (as in the “all she knows” example below). But . . . time passes, and I have instead found myself working more in parallel: drawing and writing, and the two activities having their similarities, and the results at times appearing side by side (see Montaigbakhtinian), yet . . . little knitting.

All this to introduce this week’s construction: the present “poem mixed with drawing.” The two elements were done quite separately and then combined (and this latter with the help of Laura at Tribeca Printworks). As for Elya, she is one of my favorite models and, indeed, one of my favorite people. Among my many, many drawings of her: Life . . . when you think about it . . . and “The lady with the orange hair” (see Fireflies Luciérnagas Lucioles). The drawing mixed with this poem, however, is not of Elya, and in fact is a next step in another project about which, perhaps, more anon.

All that she knows, Rubin Museum, William Eaton, 2018

Fun with titles

Como se le había acabado el pintalabios, drawing by William EatonThe other Sunday a young woman arrived to model at one of the figure-drawing sessions in my living room, and she had brought props (or self-defense?): knives. I dug up some fancier, sharper knives which someone had given my son when he was quite young, and which I had then hidden so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

Long story short: the model modeled with and without her and my son’s knives, and I had fun writing titles for my drawings. And then, a few weeks later, a woman modeled while she had a head cold, and, instead of knives, I offered her hot water with lemon and honey, which led to both drawing and title.

Peace, Peace, drawing by William Eaton

N’importe quoi

Last week I went to the Whitney Biennial, and, you might say, all I got was this T-shirt. I mean, this pastiche. (None of it “true,” and this even if we are realizing that true doesn’t mean what we long thought—and wished!—it did.) Many thanks to Tribeca Printworks to adding elegance to my rough creation. As for the subject, the scourge of explanation in art, in the “decoration” for a poem, Soho Selfie, I used this quote from the British artist Phyllida Barlow: “I don’t like works that have a sort of backstory that validates them.”

The art of explanation, pastiche, by William Eaton (après Whitney Biennial, 2019)

Letter to a young model

Sketch of young woman's face and bust, by William EatonDear readers: Once again an eccentric “Image of the Week” text. This is a version of an e-mail I sent to a model, 22 years old, I believe, who has several times modeled excellently for me and a small group of artists who come to my home to draw. Like many models and many people, young hardly less than old, she has her moments of insecurity, of wondering—even though I keep hiring her—is she, in fact, good at this job or up to my (presumed to be high) standards. The images accompanying this post are from drawings I have made of this model and other young female models like her. The first paragraph refers to the fact that I have been exploring various, a little less conventional approaches, to include having the model be moving in ordinary (non-dancer-ly) ways or reading out loud to the artists.

Dear, dear A,

My sense is that yesterday evening’s modeling session was a significant turning point for our little drawing group, both on account of the movements you were exploring and for your posing while reading out loud. In both cases, it seems to me—leaning as we go and here using one of your descriptions—we are getting away from model as “statue” (or even “dancer”) and moving toward model as human being.

This relates, too, to your wondering if we thought you were a good model (!). First, I hope you are beginning to see that I consider models very important. It’s a collaborative process—one human drawing another—and modeling is a kind of performance art, all the more delicate not only for the nudity but also for the relative stillness, the intimacy of a studio (or living room) . . . as compared, say, to a ballet dancer doing leaps or twirls across a big stage.

Nude model chillaxing, drawing by William EatonWhat makes a good model a good model? (And understanding that we all—models and artists—have our good, or more energetic, days, and our lesser ones.) To me this is a complex and difficult question, and not all artists like the same models. It can be a matter of a psychological or intellectual connection between the model and the artist. It can be a matter of speaking in some special way to larger circumstances, the way certain fashion models seem “right” for a particular decade. It can be a matter of the poses you take. There are models we like for the complexity or originality of their poses (like your standing, yet L-shaped pose toward the end of yesterday evening’s session), and I remember, too, an Art Students League model who stood simply, slump-ily, “naturally” on a small stage, and that was perfect! (It was, in some way, a “her” that spoke—and perhaps just that evening—to a “me.”)

Insofar as I am often, though not always, doing portraits of a sort, I am concerned, of course, to get down on paper some kind of physical likeness—your lips, eyes, etc. But I am also concerned to reach toward the mood of your pose or of you that day, or the mood of that particular modeling session. And these moods can easily be as much a product—or projection—of what’s in my head or heart, as of what’s in yours. But this also leads toward another sense I’ve had: that what’s in the model’s head—thoughts or books read or artwork seen or feelings or life experiences half-digested—can be as important as physical appearance. We have one model, in her 50s, I would guess, who I like particularly because her head seems quite full of “stuff.” What this stuff is . . . ? I can only guess. But my sense is that it’s interesting, and that there’s a lot of it.

Portrait of a woman, by William EatonAfter drawing you the first time (at the National Arts Club) I sought to hire you because I thought there was a rich connection between your modeling and my drawing. I have continued to think this since you have started coming to the living-room sessions, and you are a favorite of other attendees as well. You also have fit well with the group, and with our mixing of drawing, food and conversation.

In closing, I note, too, that it can be much easier to draw a model one does not like than a model one does. Caring less about the results, the artist is more relaxed. With a good-looking or creative or thoughtful model, or pose; or with a person I know well—I may so wish that my drawing rise to the level of this person and of what I know about them, . . . Tension and desire may lead my drawing to fall short. This notwithstanding, I always prefer to draw a model I like and whose modeling I admire and appreciate. As I am drawing you I feel happily the power of liking, of admiration and appreciation!

May all these words prove of some value. Responses are always welcome!

Best, William


Closing note to readers of this post

There’s more on “portraits of a sort” in last week’s Image of the Week post.

And yes, the title for this week’s post was snatched from the English title of a famous work by Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet). To adapt (and truncate) some of Rilke’s comments on marriage (and not on models and artists!) from his August 17, 1901 letter to the writer Emanuel von Bodman (an English translation may be found here):

A good model-artist relationship is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of her or his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous working side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

The Black Model, Portraits, Naming and Renaming

Please note that this is an eccentric version of “Image of the Week,” insofar as my own images are a brief moment amid the following comments and translation regarding a major show of great artists’ work. And most of the images shown here are not mine!

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d'une negresse (1800), Musée du Louvre 

Someone who was excited about the show “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today” sent me from her cellphone links to articles about the show.[1] One of the links was to an ARTnews piece about how the Musée d’Orsay had retitled the most prominent work in the show: Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800; image at right). In Paris in 2019 it is called Portrait de Madeleine, Madeleine being the name of the domestic servant who served as the model for the black woman shown in the painting.[2] This news led me to the relevant French Wikipedia article, the relevant part of which I have now translated into English (text below).

I am here to say that this is a rather more complex matter than either the renamers or the news media may have realized. For one, the changes to the painting’s title could be seen as a kind of white-washing of the history of this painting. One may begin to think of the renaming of things described by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or has it ever been thus: human beings don’t try to learn from history, but rather to get it to tell the stories they want to hear?

Portrait, male model at Figureworks, Brooklyn, January 2019, by William EatonBenoist wasn’t trying to paint a portrait of her brother-in-law’s servant Madeleine; she was painting a portrait of a type: une négresse (a Negro woman). Further, it has been proposed that Benoist’s real “model” for the painting was Jacques Louis David’s Portrait de Madame Charles-Louis Trudaine, a white woman who Benoist, as it were, did a version of with black skin.[3]

An obvious parallel: in the late nineteenth century Degas was not trying to sculpt Marie Van Goethem, the model for the now world-famous Petite danseuse de quatorze ans. He was sculpting a sort of anthropological specimen, which he exhibited, in tandem with portraits of criminals, in a glass case, in her “native” costume, and showing the short forehead then associated with the criminal classes. To rename this sculpture Marie Van Goethem might make Degas seem like a nicer or more twenty-first century guy, but it would undermine—the already quite undermined!—popular understanding of this work of art.[4]

I am interested, too, in this idea of renaming the painting after its model. I often say of my own work that I do not draw nude “figures,” but rather portraits of people who are naked (examples: dual image above right and charcoal sketch at very top). And I would be glad to title these works with the first name of the model (the surname being left off in the interest of privacy); however, it is not at all clear that the models—or certainly some of them—would want their names on these “portraits.” For money they have modeled as “types”—typically as types of human physical configurations—and that the result might be some version, some portrait of “them,” could be, at the very least, unnerving.

Lucian Freud is perhaps the best known painter of naked portraits, and, with just a few exceptions, he did not attach the model’s name to the picture, using titles such as Naked Portrait with Green Chair, Sunday Morning – Eight Legs, and Irish Woman on a Bed. Francis Bacon (image of “Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne” at right) preferred working from photographs of people because he did not want his “models” to see and be upset by “the fact of them” that was taking shape on his canvas.[5] From this perspective, I should revise my earlier statement: I do portraits of people who are naked, but my goal is not to capture the essence of some Adelaide, let’s call her, who is modeling for me, but rather to use some mix of the essence of Adelaide, the essence of me, the circumstances of the moment, the effects of the chosen materials, etc., to create a portrait of a woman who I do not insist have anything to do with some “real” Adelaide. Perhaps this is like a fiction writer who might use someone s/he knows, or several people, to create a character who seems “real to life.” And the “model” might get angry, sue for misportrayal, and the writer would answer: But my Adelaide is not meant to be you!

John Berger observed that “only in fiction can we share another person’s specific experiences.”[6] This is to say that it would be impossible for me to paint a portrait of Adelaide, but I can use a hired Adelaide as a sort of jumping off point—a model!—for a portrait. Heading in a different direction, Lucian Freud once proposed: “Being naked has to do with making a more complete portrait, a naked body is somehow more permanent, more factual. . . . When someone is naked there is in effect nothing to be hidden.” When I went the other day to an exhibition the other day of his “monumental portraits,” however, I did not get this impression. I saw a lot of flesh and wonderful, luxurious, almost still liquid paint (hardly visible in images on screens); but as for the models hiding nothing? Their facial expressions and eyes gave me the same feeling I get looking at strangers on the sidewalks of Manhattan: it’s stunning, if not overwhelming, that there are all these others whose heads are as full of thoughts and feelings as mine is; but as for what those thoughts and feelings might be . . . I can only guess at a fraction of them. So much remains hidden!

In the gallery label (dated May 2007) for the Naked Portrait whose image is above right, the Tate museum offers:

Freud is famous for his supposedly objective images of people, particularly naked women. Here the figure is shown lying awkwardly on a bed, with nothing else visible except the stool. It is as if she is an animal on the dissecting table. This feeling is reinforced by the harsh, artificial lighting. The title suggests that this is a painting of a particular person, setting it apart from anonymous or generalised conventional nudes. But Freud’s inclusion of his tools in the foreground reminds us that we are, in fact, looking at the artificial setting of an artist’s studio.

Thomas Eakins, Miss Alice Kurtz, 1903, Fogg Art Museum, HarvardThe Philadelphia-banker father of Alice Kurtz, who sat for Thomas Eakins’s portrait Miss Alice Kurtz (image at right), may well have questioned whether this was an appropriate title for the painting. Some years ago the Fogg Museum’s “gallery text” accompanying this work stated that the father complained that Eakins “had reduced his healthy and athletic daughter to ‘a bag of bones, an anatomical sketch.’” While the painting shows few bones and is hardly a sketch, we can understand the complaint. The painter has sketched, in the sense of proposed or imagined, something of the insides of this young woman (or of a projection of Eakins onto and into her). The bones here are above all psychological—a sadness, a pensiveness, an ambivalence. The 2019 gallery text, as accessed online, reads: “Thomas Eakins painted during a period in American history when the roles of men and women were at once rigidly prescribed and actively questioned; he explored questions of gender throughout his career.”[7]

Is such re-contextualization now required in order to justify the continued exhibition, in American university art museums, of work by white men who self-identify as heterosexual? And we, having come to the end of our road, may also ask: Is Portrait de Madeleine a good title for Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting?

— Comments, translation and two drawings by William Eaton

Translation of Titre du tableau, segment of Portrait d’une négresse article accessed May 23, 2019

Please note that, while I was translating this short text—in the space of just a few minutes—the original text French, posted online, was changed. And so it may well have changed again since then.

Title of the painting

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy Trioson, Portrait of J.B. Belley, Deputy for Saint-Domingue, circa 1797The 1800 Salon booklet . . . presents the painting with the title Portrait d’une négresse. Thus Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s work, by both its title and subject, makes reference to a notable precedent: the portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley painted by Girodet (image at right). This painting had made an impression on contemporaries as it was the first portrait of a black person to be shown publicly. Originally exhibited [at] the 1798 Salon, it was entitled Portrait d’un nègre. It was customary for artists to briefly describe the work they were showing in the Salon booklet; this allows us to conclude that Girodet himself had chosen the title of his painting. The word “nègre” was commonly used at the time to designate people of color, but la Société des amis des Noirs opposed the use of this title because it referred to the slave trade. This led Girodet to rename his painting le citoyen Belley ex-représentant des colonies.

Unlike Girodet’s painting, the change of the original title of Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting to Portrait d’une femme noire did not come from the artist, but was effected in the early 2000s by the Louvre, which notably showed the work with this new title at the exhibition Portrait publics, portraits privés, held at Le Grand Palais in 2007 . . . For Marianne Levy, author of a biography of Benoist, the Louvre took liberties in modifying the title of the work pour des raisons consensuelles [in an effort to conform to the spirit of the times].

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1963), Musée d'OrsayIn the exhibition “Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse,” held at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019, the painting is named Portrait de Madeleine; the curator’s note does not neglect to mention the previous titles. The painting is featured—being the first one shown at the entrance to the exhibit, and thus becoming, for the journalist Mathilde Serrell « une nouvelle porte d’entrée dans l’histoire de l’art et des représentations » [a new gateway into the history of art and of portrayals]. On the upper floors of the Musée d’Orsay, the name Madeleine is one of the thirteen showcased in a light installation by American artist Glenn Ligon.[8] Madeleine is there alongside other black models, such as Laure, the [model for the] servant in Édouard Manet’s Olympia (image above right). In her book Une Africaine au Louvre, published in 2019, art historian Anne Lafont for the first time gives the model [for Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s painting] a biography, which establishes her identity and presents her as a freed slave born in Guadeloupe and subsequently employed as a servant by Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s brother-in-law.


[1] The show has moved from the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it will be on exhibit through July 21, 2019. The French title is “Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse,” which indicates an expansion of the time frame: from Manet back to Géricault. We may note here, too, an odd phenomenon of our twenty-first century: people send you links to articles they have not read, and then, if you’re foolish or out of step (like me), you read these things and may have strong reactions to the contents, while the sender is blithely sending other links to other people.

[2] Musée d’Orsay Retitles Marie-Guillemine Benoist Painting for ‘Black Models’ Show [Updated] by The Editors of ARTnews, March 26, 2019.

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait de Madame Charles-Louis Trudaine (unfinished, 1791-92), Musée du Louvre[3] The source here is a footnote in the aforementioned article Portrait d’une négresse. The footnote gives as a reference James Smalls, « Slavery is a Woman: “Race,” Gender, and Visuality in Marie Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800) » [archive], Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 2004 : “It has been observed that Benoist’s portrait is in fact ‘a negative image of the pale Mme. Trudaine’ depicted by David sometime in the late eighteenth century.” (Image of David’s unfinished painting is at right.)

[4] For those readers of French who wish to explore this subject further: Camille Laurens, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Stock, 2017). Partial image of twentieth-century reproduction of Degas’s work, and without the surrounding glass case, is below right.

Edgar Degas, La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, partial image of refabrication, Musée d'Orsay[5] Sebastian Smee, The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art (Random House, 2017), 51: “The subject’s presence inhibited him [Bacon], he said, because ‘if I like them, I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.’”

The Freud painting titles were found at the show Lucian Freud: Monumental, held at the Acquavella Galleries in New York in April and May 2019.

[6] John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso (Pantheon Books, 1980), 27. Originally published 1965. The quotation from Lucian Freud is from a text posted by the Acquavella gallery, and this is also where I saw the portraits. See note 5 above. Tate museum post: Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait, 1972-3.

[7] Click for the full gallery text.

[8] Glenn Ligon is an African-American conceptual artist whose work explores race and language, among other subjects.


Potentially of Interest to Avid Readers

Names & Naming—Identity, Self-Determination, Power, by Steven A. Burr, Zeteo, August 30, 2016

Renior, Love, by William Eaton, Zeteo, May 22, 2015

Valéry, Landscapes, The Whole Human, by William Eaton, Zeteo, May 22, 2019

The dual image of the man, with red highlights, was previously used as one of the images for Delicious thoughts Pensamientos deliciosos Pensées délicieuses Pensieri deliziosi Вкусные мысли, Montaigbakhtinian, March 25, 2019.

Sweet potatoes, marriage, divorce, Rodin

Reclining sweet potatoes, watercolor, after Rodin (erotic drawings), by William EatonIn an essay on marriage and divorce, the nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill observed:

Most persons have but a very moderate capacity of happiness; but no person ever finds this out without experience, very few even with experience: and most persons are constantly wreaking that discontent which has its source internally, upon outward things.[1]

With this in mind, an American, for example—rather than pursuing more happiness than s/he has reason to expect—might get on with the task of coping with a life in which happiness is not a notable feature. And thus my current habit of drawing and painting sweet potatoes while the New York Mets’ television announcers and baseball players chatter and play in the background (on my TV)?

It was not Mill who led me to this habit, but a duck breast I bought at a farmer’s market, which in turn led me to a recipe for Pan Seared Duck Breast with Sweet Potatoes, Spinach and Onions. So I went to my local Whole Foods, and I found such an architecturally intriguing potato, I couldn’t help but try to draw it. As I have never studied architectural drawing, however, . . . Or could it be because I refuse to sign up for Amazon Prime . . . ? Failure.

Rodin, Avant la création, circa 1900, Musée RodinInstead of such things, you might say, I have attentively studied and done versions of Rodin’s more or less erotic drawings (example at right).[2] And did this lead me to find a more appropriate potato at my local Associated supermarket? Après Auguste, I used pencil, watercolor and gouache (plus two pens).  I have read that he had his models walk and lie around naked in the rooms of his house or studio, and he would sketch them on the fly, as it were. Although my potatoes only moved when I bumped the worktable in my bedroom, they were certainly lying around naked, and one of the “adventitious shoots” (or sprouting buds) did remind me, a little, of the nipples of a pregnant model who I had recently sketched.



[1] The full text of Mill’s essay may be found, along with others, at Early Essays on Marriage and Divorce by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill.

[2] Rodin example shown above (woman on her back) is titled « Avant la création ». This image and others from this series may be found on the website of le Musée Rodin in Paris.