Sarah Jane Eaton
Michael Bowdidge and Mark Roth
M503 Year 1
30 April 2019
The Relationships Between Artist, Model, and Work
The following research examines the relationship between Model and Artist, a dynamic that has changed and shifted with each new artist and model. I focused my attention on the ways the relationship affects the final artwork, the effect on the process of creating a piece, and how much of each participant is visible in the final work. Through examining the recorded connections between past artists and models, as well as my own studio research, I will document how artists are influenced by their models and the relationships with them and how the final artwork captures those associations.
The way our personal biases, experiences, social structures, and communications shape our interactions with one another creates a lens through which we perceive each other. This filter can be very strong if an artist has a current or direct connection with their model and will impact the final image. Because of this, I worked with models who were acquaintances and friends, myself through self-portraits, and strangers, to compare the undercurrents and the connection between model and artist.
Part of my studio research involves giving my models a stronger role in the partnership of creation by allowing them to make choices in how they are depicted, which will hopefully allow me to capture more of their essence- their persona- on my panel. I do not want to completely remove myself from the process or the final piece, but in some works I endeavored to limit the level of my individual aesthetic, my filters, that may cloud the persona of my models. In others I let my perception of the model take over. I found a distinct difference in how successful a piece became when I tried to eliminate my presence completely.
This paper aims to give shape and voice to the model and their contributions to artists, to highlight the power dynamics present, and to investigate the ways the model/artist relationship changes the art produced.
The relationship between model and artist can have a profound effect on the artwork generated from the sessions spent together. The artworks describe the form as well as the presence of the model, which in turn gives shape to the connection the model shared with the artist. There is a balance of responsibility and dependency between the two, which has historically been skewed in the artist’s favor. My questions are: Can the artist give more voice to their models, relinquishing choices, allowing for the model to have a more participatory role? Is this visible in a work of art? How much of the relationship is present in the final work, and does that make each portrait, in part, a self-portrait of the artist?
First, we need to examine some of the traditional arrangements between the model and artist. There will always be some level of association, whether it is professional or personal, between the model and artist. Models were either the subject of the artwork or a placeholder, depending on what the artist projected on to them in the work. Very often little was known about a model, even though their face/body/likeness was preserved in the work of the artist. Even though there is a partnership needed in the creation of a work of art, between the model and the artist, the artist rarely credits the model. This partnership can extend beyond the studio into personal life via friendship, romantic relations, or acquaintanceship (Oakley).
Figure models were often thought of as barely above prostitutes in the 1800’s, regardless of their relationships outside of the studio, just a person to pay for the use of their body. The model was there as a physical object for the artist to capture the light, the form, detached from personal life. Howard Oakley brings this up when referencing Joanna Hiffernan, an Irish woman who transcended the professional role to become a companion to multiple artists. She appears in paintings by both James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Gustave Courbet and was a lover to both. In some of their works, she is named in the titles where other works she takes on the mantle of the mannequin, standing in for fictitious characters (Oakley). It presents the question of whether she would have been named had she not had such close relationships with the artists? She became a part of their personal lives, attached to more than just the canvases she graced.
As an artist, I am more interested in painting the people around me, my friends, family, and acquaintances as they are rather than using them as stand ins for specific poses. They inspire me and encourage me. I will admit that there must be some attraction, but for me it is rarely sexual. Gilbert J. Rose examines the ambiguity of the model/artist pairing, noting that often the act of posing for a painting is a way to sanction a relationship between a model and the artist, but that artists such as Picasso and Henri Matisse saw themselves as the most important element, and that the model was simply a “trampoline” off of which they could bounce themselves (Rose). Since my models are primarily from my daily life, I feel like I humanize them more; I am not looking for what I can get out of them, but rather a way to give back to the important individuals in my life.
One of the most significant pieces I set out to create, which was not a self-portrait, was of a dear friend named Joanna who agreed to sit for a session. The original concept had a beautiful, detailed, and vibrant design, bringing in my love of Byzantine halos and Art Nouveau framework. I had a great plan to use drawing, collage, and tar gel, but I could not make it work. The painting fought me as soon as I started drawing on the panel and kept fighting me until I took a step back. I realized the concept was too busy for my minimalist friend, that I was projecting onto them because we had a history, a past relationship that my brain was trying to push on to her portrait. She was becoming a placeholder and not a subject, until I scaled down what I saw as my influence on her esthetic. I felt like our friendship and my excitement were obscuring her persona in my original rough draft, as if there was too much of me accounted for in the image. This led me to the question of what percentage of me and what percentage of her was in the first piece versus the final painting? How much was actual presence, and how much was a product of misplaced enthusiasm?
I wanted to show Joanna as she is, without my influence diminishing her essence in the painting. An article in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis recounts a panel discussion on the relationship’s artists have with their models, and not just the humans in front of them but the mental models as well. Harold and Elsa Blum bring up how Pablo Picasso painted his “’family’ of friends” into his work, but that he also superimposed his own symbolic costuming, creating self-portraits of the figures included in Family of Saltimbanques (1). Not only does he remove their essence in this way, leaving only their resemblance, but he uses other elements to reinforce his superiority in the group, reminding the viewer (or himself, or them?) that he is the most important element to the dynamic (Miller, J. David & Gilbert J. Rose (2005).
I wanted to know how the relationships of artists and models may affect the final artworks generated from their time together. One of the most well-known figure painters is Picasso. Much has been written about his tumultuous affairs, marriages, and unions with almost all his female models. His relationship with surrealist artist Dora Maar led to some of his most iconic paintings, including Dora Maar au Chat (2), and the relationship they shared is evident in the way her portrayed her. Their turbulent time together is detailed in the way he has taken her apart and remade her. The sharp angles and distinct lines that dismantle her body, reconstructing her broken form, the red slash at her neck all feel violent. Even the color on her arms is set in separate, unblended sections, further rupturing her to pieces. The only place on her we see a softening is in the color on her rearranged face. She is so large in an imposing chair, filling the space of the room floor to ceiling, side to side. He painted her as a person who filled the space of a room which may seem flattering or may seem domineering, and her claw-like fingernails are a clue to her fierceness. I also found it interesting that the cat suffers no fragmentation, just basic flattening and scale reduction. Unlike Maar, this kitten does not seem to have hurt Picasso in any meaningful ways.
In the article, “Pablo Picasso: Women are Either Goddesses or Doormats,” Mark Hudson details the many models with which the artist engaged in affairs, relationships, and even marriage. Picasso would even see multiple women at the same time, sometimes pitting them against each other. The models were used up, drained of what he could extract from their lives, then discarded for the next woman. Hudson also notes on the mental health of Picasso’s models, after their relationship had ended, and it is not a comforting idea that many of his models struggled with depression, isolation, or other issues after parting company with the artist.
It seems curious then, that in his late life he met a young woman whom he could not conquer. Sylvette came to his attention in the spring of 1954, with multiple drawings and paintings coming from their modeling sessions, often portraying her with her high ponytail. The care and delicacy of the linework, the gentleness in her fragmentation for his cubist works seems almost reverential to me (3). Some critics write off the work from this era as less emotional, but I like the idea that Picasso could still create beautiful, moving work, without having to sleep with the model, without destroying another human being (Sooke). They had very different relationships which I feel is obvious in the ways he portrayed the two distinct women.
In my readings I came across an article from Grace Glueck where she proposes that many of her contemporary artists (the 1980’s) choose to work from professional models to eliminate “the complex psychological, emotional and sexual overtones of such relationships” that arise from working with close friends, relatives, or lovers. She too comments on the way Picasso worked his way through lovers as models, and that his catalog is virtually a documentation of his conquests. His associations with his models were almost always intimate, where many artists prefer to keep a professional distance. She notes that some artists still prefer the familiarity of working with known models, often documenting their growth and changes, both physically and emotionally, across a span of works.
This left me to wonder about how these varying levels of intimacy could affect the final work, or how that relationship may be evident in the portrayal of the model. “The Artist’s Model” details the way the dynamic between the two can shift. It demonstrates how the artist can make visible emotions, and how they can manipulate the medium to make an image that is both representational of an individual while at the same time creating a foreign entity (Gordon). My models are all people close to me, persons with whom I share a close connection. I am constantly learning about them and the ways we connect as I create around them. Even when I paint myself, it helps me to articulate my emotional state, my thoughts, and my ideas. I can explore my relationship with myself, or my relationship with my model through the work.
I have always worked with models that I knew on some level, even in my undergraduate studies, people with which I shared connections. I am not unique in this instance, as contemporary artists use people in their immediate lives as models. Wendy Weitman notes that Elizabeth Peyton “turned to those around her, friends and colleagues, many of whom are also artists, whose beauty has affected her own life deeply” to pose as models, when reviewing the works included in Ghost. While Peyton is recognized for her depictions of celebrities and historical figures, she also includes her close friends.
Since I almost exclusively use friends and relatives as models, I was curious to see if my artwork looked different, if it felt different from my usual style if I used a model who was a stranger to me. There was no personal relationship, no shared history to influence how I saw the model or to color my perception of them. I put out a call for individuals willing to be a part of my research and who I had never met before. That was how I came to know Anna. We had a connection through a mutual friend, and she agreed to pose for me as well as answer questions about the process from her point of view.
I encouraged Anna to pose however she felt most at ease, and at the level of nudity with which she was comfortable; I wanted this to be a positive experience for each of us. She asked to have conversations while I worked, rather than a silent session. This presented a challenge as she moved while we talked, becoming very animated at various moments in the exchange. It gave me more insight into her mannerisms, her expressions, and her personality. Even though we began as strangers, our familiarity grew into an acquaintanceship, then eventually a friendship, with both of us becoming more relaxed in each session. We had conversations about large and small things, and I began to see our relationship evolve. As I would paint, Anna would comment on the colors, how I painted her nose, the way I used the various materials, and we began to share ideas.
I had begun a large painting of Anna from our first sitting, combined with a few notes she gave me as a part of a questionnaire. I had asked for simple symbols to include in a work that would be self-described, without my filter on her persona. I worked on this larger piece concurrently with our smaller sessions from life, and I was amazed to see how it evolved as we began to be better acquainted. There was an issue that kept coming up in my studio research- how do I create a work that has less of my own schema filtered on to that of my model? I still saw some of my perception of her personality filtering in, and I wanted to lessen my influence to give Anna a portrait that was wholly her.
I also realized how dependent the artist is on the model when it comes to creating. If the model is late, or does not show, the work cannot progress. There were times our schedules did not match up and we would go weeks without getting to work together. In her blog post “The Relationship Between Artist and Model,” for the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Ellen Altfest remarked, “It might seem like the artist has all the power in the artist model relationship, but the model has a real power, and that is the power to leave.” Unless a portrait artist works solely from photographs or in self-portraits, this is one of the greatest powers a model has over the artist. I feel that I want to give more emphasis, more voice to my models; I want to hear their side of the story, share the power with them.
Some artists involve their models to higher degrees than others. Maynard Dixon became friends with his model George Whitewing, eventually collaborating on other projects, becoming equal creative contributors (Winther). Dixon’s poem “Interpreter” conveys the idea that the artist is interpreting a living moment, an idea, and capturing it, where as the model is doing their best to interpret the intent, the drive or need of the artist, to feed it back to them. Alberto Giacometti exemplified this, believing that his models were active participants in the process. James Lord shared his account of being painted by Giacometti, who actively sought his model’s opinion and input (Lord). It is fascinating to see an extended account of a sitting from the model’s perspective, as we often only see the finished artwork, with some blurb from the artist.
Another account of a sitting with a famous portrait artist comes from Mary D. Garrard, when she commissioned, with her mother, a portrait by Alice Neel (4). Garrard offers a keen take on the proclivities of the artist, the way she pulled out truths from her models to embed in the paint, the way she liked to catch them off guard. Garrard recounts how Neel insisted on painting her just as she was when she walked into the studio. It was a choice she made, as the artist, on how best to capture the persona of Garrard on a canvas. The pose, the androgyny, the flattening of color are all characteristics familiar in Neel’s portraits, the choices she made as the artist to convey who her model was. Her choices, not the model’s- her influence, her presence is in the work, a filter on the model. I wondered if I could limit my choices, allowing for more of the models’ essence, their persona to shine through my work.
I began, with the help of my advisers, to relinquish some of my choices to my models. With Anna, I made the choices on the canvas, she made the choices of the form. I was still painting her with some of my byzantine-styled halos, with patterns creating a background, with unnatural color. But I wanted to go further. I wanted to explore what would happen if I gave my models the chance to make the majority of the choices for their portraits, and what that might do to the resulting work. Could I limit my presence in a work, to get an unfiltered depiction of my models? I asked for a group of friends to be a part of this experiment, giving them a survey on what they would want to see, how they would want to be painted by me.
I gave my models the decisions on materials, style, even the pose and framing of the portrait. My goal was to give them as many choices as possible to capture a more complete version of them. Most of the eight participants gave some of the choices back to me, one gave almost all the decision-making power back to me, and one was very determined in what he wanted to see me create. On the lenient end, Lou gave me very minimal direction; she wanted a close-up portrait with bright colors and elements of collage. At first, I was a little dismayed that she did not have more preferences, but she assured me that she trusted me to make something beautiful that displayed our friendship (5). I combined painting, drawing, and collage to create a unique piece, free from constraints. I am now looking to artists such as Mickalene Thomas for inspiration to incorporate collage and assemblage into my paintings. Her work is expressive, dimensional, and layered, and the way she combines various mediums into one image feels very deliberate, as if she is selecting each element to represent the model accurate to her perception of them.
On the opposite end, Ian was very specific in the way he wanted to see himself portrayed, with an emphasis on what I liked about him. I struggled with his portrait. His choices eliminated most of my standard art-making avenues, and I did not know how to complete the work to his satisfaction without my usual tools at my disposal (6). My vibrant, emotional colors, my abstractions and exaggerations were gone. I was left with a portrait that feels less solid than the others, less representative of how I actually feel about Ian. In comparing the emotion of Lou’s portrait and Ian’s, I think I limited myself too much- I took too much of myself out of his portrait that it feels less dimensional than the other works in the experiment. In trying to limit myself, I limited the amount of our relationship that could show in the painting.
This realization reinforced my idea that all portraits are a type of self-portrait, in that we are capturing our relationship with the model in the way we paint them. This also made me recognize that my goal of eliminating the artist’s presence in a piece is counterproductive to creating emotionally resonant work. We can try to lessen the percentage of our essence in a piece, but removing it completely takes some of the strength of the portrayal away. While I had to remove some of my aesthetic from my piece of Joanna, I still wanted to convey my love and appreciation for her. I can reign in my ideas, so I don’t smother the presence of my model without taking away the richness our relationship gives the artwork.
The relationship between model and artist can have a profound effect on the artwork generated from the sessions spent together. Being aware of the type of relationship you have with your model allows you to manage how that is portrayed in your work. As artists, we are responsible for recognizing how our models influence our creative processes and giving them credit for how they contribute to the progression and completion of our work. We have the ability to capture our connections and preserve them, honoring their vital role in our artistry.