Tag Archives: nude

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

Wikipedia.fr article accessed May 23, 2019

Please note that, while I was translating this short Wikipedia.fr 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 Wikipedia.fr 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.

Woman Hat Café Portrait (+ Thomas Eakins and Alice Kurtz)

Woman outside café, portrait (almost French nineteenth century)by William Eaton

I have thought of myself as a portrait artist who often does portraits of women who happen to be naked. (See Nudes portfolio, and elsewhere.) In some next life (and I am not young!), I look forward to doing nude portraits of women of my acquaintance who are not professional models. This—naturalism, we might call it—is an advantage of using people in cafés (such as the woman at left) as “models.”

I am also here reminded of how Thomas Eakins used to ask most every woman who sat for a portrait if she would pose nude for him. (Most refused, I believe.) This from Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, 2006) concerning the subject of one of Eakins’s greatest paintings: Miss Alice Kurtz.

Alice Kurtz, a prominent banker’s daughter whom Eakins painted clothed in 1903, was one of the female subjects he asked to pose nude. Many years after their modeling session, after Kurtz had become a grandmother, she recalled the “amusing incident,” as she termed it. In the midst of her posing, her collar button slid down inside the back of her dress. “I wore high starched collars over shirtwaists in those days,” she wrote. “I sat as long as possible with the wretched button pressing into my spinal column & then during a rest I screwed up my courage to ask Mr. Eakins if he could reach down my back & get it out. After doing so, he remarked, ‘You have a nice back—much like a boy. I would like to paint you nude.’ His manner was so simple, so honest, I said, ‘Well, I will ask my Mother and see.’ My Mother did not forbid it, but said perhaps it would be better not on the whole. . . . My personal reaction would have been that I’d have quite liked to do it, for I felt he was quite pure-minded in the matter. I was rather a simple-minded young thing of twenty or there about when he painted me and the idea of being a nude model quite appealed to me.”

All drawings and paintings on this website are by William Eaton. Those interested in acquiring the original works can contact William at eaton0824 AT gmail.