IN DEGAS, MANET AND THE PRE-RAPHAELITES
(WITH GLIMPSES OF PAULA REGO).
By ANTHONY RUDOLF.
June 8, 2023: For Paula, with love and devotion, on the first anniversary of her death.
Author’s note: On this anniversary, it feels right to acknowledge the support Paula received over the years from her family, friends, other artists, models and studio collaborators (especially Lila Nunes), galleries (present and past) and museums (including her Casa das Histórias in Cascais), medical people, publishers, writers, editors, curators, etchers and lithographers. Have I omitted any categories?
• Introduction •
“A real sensation of amazement or look of beauty or something comes I think from familiarity… You see a familiar person for a moment as a strange object and it’s
intensely moving” — Frank Auerbach
“Likeness is a means not an end in itself. Values appear after a sustained period of looking” — Bonnard
FOR HISTORICAL AND sociological reasons, very little has been written by models themselves. As early as the seventeenth century, Rembrandt and others were employing prostitutes as nude models. In nineteenth-century Paris, models were drawn from the worlds of chorines, chorus girls (known as ‘rats’), corps de ballet members and prostitutes — hence of course the appellation ‘model’, which to this day can be found on seedy door lintels in Soho, in London’s West End telephone booths and appropriate websites. Professional modelling was not considered a job for respectable women. It ranked with the chorus and ballet as only a little higher than prostitution. But the work was better paid and less tiring than endless rehearsals. Even so, models often look tired in pictures – after all, holding a lengthy pose is demanding, not least if the artist is a great realist or even naturalist painter and sculptor like Degas. Impressionist he was not.
The artist and art educator Colin Wiggins, who like Paula Rego and the author, is a Degas admirer, writes with sympathy1 about the Belgian-born Marie van Goethem, Degas’s model for his wax masterpiece, The Little Ballet Dancer. His heirs had it cast in bronze. Marie was a member of the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera: ‘Marie’s own creativity enabled Degas to produce one of his most influential works.’ If I have understood his ambiguous phrase (in a personal communication) correctly, Colin could be romanticising here – is he referring to the ballet or the studio? The former was gruelling group work with little or no significance in terms of the individual’s self-expression, and the creativity in the studio was the artist’s.
Yet she surely inspired him and lives on thanks to her wish and need to sit for an artist of genius who, in his own way, saw more to admire in the anonymous lowly rats than in the grand women on or off stage. Another artist spell-bound by Marie, Cathie Pilkington, has made a wonderful and characteristic version of the little ballet dancer which I saw during her 2018 show at Dorich House near Kew Gardens. I recall too that Paula pointed to a Degas work at the National Gallery (I think it was ‘The Little Ballet Dancer’) and said she had copied the same pose or a gesture.
Colin Wiggins and I discussed Jo Hiffernan who was Whistler’s lover and model, and Courbet’s too – see La belle irlandaise and Le Sommeil. Jo had a certain respectability, although Le Sommeil raised eyebrows, as did the French painter’s L’Origine du monde: a new and plausible theory argues that the woman is not Jo but Constance Quéniaux. Painted ten years after Manet’s Olympia, L’Origine du monde is a highly regarded picture at the Musée d’Orsay, and both are among the most audacious paintings in the history of art, even in the history of the nude or, rather, the naked. L’Origine du monde was once owned by the pioneering psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who hid it behind a sliding screen. What would it mean to enter this picture?
You would have had to know Jo or Constance very well to recognise her from this angle. It is fascinating to watch its viewers, just as it was fascinating to watch matrons and their daughters look at Paula Rego’s abortion paintings and etchings on their first showing in Lisbon, mostly in a kind of stunned silence. It’s as if one is spying not on Susannah — in the much-painted episode from the Apocrypha (including the amazing versions by Artemisia Gentileschi) — but on the Elders themselves. And in plain view too. See, too, Félix Vallotton’s Chaste Suzanne, another reversal of the story.
Excellent books have been written by portraitees, to coin a word, such as Martin Gayford on Freud’s Man with a Blue Scarf and James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait. The latter is a short and compelling account of sitting for the sculptor, who had earlier been expelled by Breton from the Surrealist movement because he used a sitter – but what or who was Breton’s Nadja if not the equivalent of a sitter for the eponymous and foundational surrealist book? Lord wrote letters to friends about his experience and made notes following afternoon sessions and sometimes during a sitting, when the artist was on the phone.
The Paintings of William Coldstream contains a valuable introduction by Lawrence Gowing, an interview by David Sylvester, and a brilliant account, based on notes taken at the time, by Colin St. John Wilson of sitting for a portrait: Coldstream, whose celebrated measurements create harmony and contain anxiety, sought to discover what was there all along. Quentin Crisp was a professional model in life classes. Henrietta Moraes’ Henrietta is a classic vie de bohème memoir — parts of it describing a world Paula knew well — but there is only passing mention of the author’s time as a model for Bacon and Freud, the latter being one of Henrietta’s lovers. Lord’s book has been made into a charming film, Final Portrait, albeit one which buys deeply into the myth of Bohemia.
Gertrude Stein, writing in the persona of her partner, ends her most famous book: “I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it”. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the most accessible and least characteristic work by this great writer and hostess and art collector, is one of my talismanic books about life in Paris, along with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises and Henry Miller’s A Quiet Place in Clichy and Brassai. “She always was, she always is, tormented by the problem of the external and the internal”, says Gertrude/Alice. Stein describes the portraits by many painters she sat for, including one of the most famous faces ever done, “her” Picasso which Paula and I saw at the Met in New York: Stein quotes the painter: “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will”. I wonder whether Vallotton, who made a fine portrait of her, would agree. Or Wilde’s character Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian Gray. One is reminded of Seamus Heaney’s remark that a portrait of him “looks more like me than I am”.
The critic Marcel Brion, as cited by Stein, refers to the exactitude and austerity of her sentences. Painting influenced her writing, her written portraits, enormously. But she sought to portray a person over time — something impossible to do in a single painting, although not impossible in sequences, as Paula has shown — by deploying subtle shifts in syntax, rhythm and tone: Stein dances to the music of time as she deploys multiple Détails, to use the title of a book by Marcel Cohen she would have loved. As for her life in the open under the occupation, protected by collaborationist power, she — Lesbian, Jewish, American — is a far more interesting figure than Céline, whom Frederic Raphael took to pieces in the TLS.2
Stein is one of the topics of conversation when I visit Raphael and his wife Beetle in South Kensington. In their flat is a portrait painted by their daughter Sarah — a brilliant artist who much admired Paula and who died tragically young — of my late and dear friend Susannah York, which was created as a prop for Freddie’s television series, After the War. It has never been seen in public since the original showing in 1989.
The poet W.D. Jackson wrote to me from Munich after watching Jake Auerbach’s film about Paula:
The section on Paula’s models is important in several ways. It’s quite clear from what she says that you contributed to widening the scope of her subject-matter considerably…Lila enables Paula to paint herself without looking in a mirror but Lila, as another person, makes Paula’s pictures of her so much more than self-portraits: in fact, insofar as P. is painting that other person (usually as someone else again), Lila’s presence has the effect of helping to de-Romanticize and imbue them with a cool, almost Classical aura. Paula tends to paint like that in any case, of course. Hence her many styles…But the influence of the d two models on a major painter is far-reaching and clearly documented.’
• Degas •
“He painted emphatically, instead of suggesting. He didn’t seduce, he frightened”.
—Jacques-Emile Blanche quoted by Laurens
Marie. Camille Laurens’ short book on Marie: Little Dancer Aged Fourteen combines diligent research and educated speculation about this figure who vanished from history — but not from art history. Let me enter into a brief dialogue with her. In order to capture movement — one of the aims of this great artist — Degas used wax, which is so “haptic”, to use a favourite word of Paula’s, which he loved. George Moore said the artist modelled “strange dolls”. These are akin to Paula’s dollies, except that mostly Paula and Lila make dollies for Paula to copy rather than exhibit in their own right. Degas loved music, which was part of the glamour (in the proper sense) of the ballet and opera. He would later say: “dance turns music into drawing”. His poor eyesight led him to prefer night time settings and was another reason for turning from painting to sculpture. Laurens sees the face he gives Marie as older than her fourteen years and deliberately suggestive of criminal physiognomies and Neanderthal woman. Camille exaggerates the resemblance but undoubtedly Marie looks different from her appearance in other statuettes, such as ‘The School Girl’. Paula too has been known to swerve from the likeness, but only after she has got it. Originally nude, the little ballet dancer shocked society because she is, as it were, more nude thanks to the presence of the clothing disguise than an actual nude would be. More important is the artist’s insistence that she, for all her social and other defects, is worthy of his attention. This is the heart of the matter, always: the artist pays close attention, investing emotion and meaning in what is being closely observed. Laurens retells the famous story that on his deathbed Degas grabbed the arm of his niece and examined it fiercely. This may not be a happy death (which, says Maurice Sendak, can only be experienced “if you’re William Blake and totally crazy”), but is full of meaning and power. Years earlier, Degas wrote to Tissot from New Orleans: “Everything is beautiful in this world of the people. But one Paris laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all”. He is the great painter of modern life in terms of the labour of urban women, especially its repetitive nature.
There is a hint of defiance in Marie’s look, an almost sardonic fuck-you to the posh and the grand, which co-exists with the tragic lost soul as depicted by Laurens. Marie surely knew and was pleased that the eye of such an artist means more than all the gazes put together of the top-end stage-door Johnnies, real voyeurs, who ogle the little “rats”. In this sculpture, Marie, fourteen years old, a humble member of the corps de ballet, is a prima ballerina assoluta, alone of all her kind. Degas generates compelling and wondrous images out of ugliness, cruelty, and revolutionary taboo-busting in this and other works, which, more than those of any other nineteenth-century artist, prefigure Picasso and Bacon and, not least, Paula, with her apparent rejection of traditional concepts of beauty. Over the years, I have thought of Manet or Van Gogh as the fountain and origin of modern art. I would now plump for Degas, although the art critic Barry Schwabsky argues that Claude Monet is more influential than all of them.
Camille Laurens quotes Huysmans as connecting the little dancer to the Christ in Burgos Cathedral — which Paula and I saw on a visit — but she rightly finds the link tenuous. It’s a shame there is no record of what Marie and Degas talked about, unlike a later model, Pauline, who comes next, but Laurens quotes the Goncourts’ journal on how Degas worked with Marie to get the pose right, and I am reminded of Paula directing her models, including me. Marie — as a sculpture (and that, of course, is what she remains forever) — required twenty six preliminary studies. She was fired from the corps de ballet in May 1882 for playing truant (presumably while modelling for Degas and maybe other artists) about a year after the sculpture was completed. The last known sighting of her was with her sister and mother on July 20 1882 at the railway station, en route to Belgium, but her mother was apprehended by the police for theft. Marie would have been amazed to learn that opera workers were participating in the strike led by rail workers to preserve pension benefits.
Pauline. Alice Michel was the pseudonym for an unnamed writer or journalist whose brief memoir, Degas and his Model, was originally published by the Paris journal Mercure de France in two instalments in 1919, two years after the painter’s death. It contains many anecdotes about the grumpy genius told to her by Pauline, one of his regular poorly paid sitters, who took up long and difficult poses in a freezing studio, in the final phase of the master’s active life as a sculptor, throughout the first decade of the twentieth century.
By now, even though Degas worked every day, he could finish nothing, so it is difficult to pinpoint among his surviving pieces an actual sculpture portraying Pauline. This disappointed the model, as it disappoints us. It was a paid job for her, but did not only involve posing. For part of the work was to humour the master and know when to lie or change the subject, suggesting high intelligence or deep intuition on her part. She consoles him about his fading eyesight and troublesome bladder, and advises him not to wander around Paris alone.
Leading Degas scholars do not question the authenticity of the account, although occasionally it has been suggested that Alice and Pauline are the same person. This is highly questionable. The text reads as though it was written by a professional journalist or writer, a very unlikely alter ego for a model in those days. Jeff Nagy in the introduction to his translation published in the gallerista David Zwirner’s Ekphrasis series, believes the author might be the symbolist and Decadent writer Rachilde who was on the editorial board of the Mercure and ran the salon there.3 Whatever, the account rings true to those of us who have personal experience of posing for a painter or a sculptor. There are similarities to and differences from Paula Rego, to put it mildly. For one thing, Paula does not have to be humoured or lied to. On the contrary, she welcomes comments on the work in progress. Like Paula, the French artist knew whole operas by heart, but Paula plays them on CDs, whereas Degas had to sing the arias, “translating them for Pauline’s benefit”.
Unlike some of the male figures in his paintings and prints, there is no evidence that Degas himself was a predator or peeping tom or flasher (rather, as Ruth Rosengarten insists, he empathised with his models), unlike for example Puvis de Chavannes, who was notorious, although he seems to have been civilised with Suzanne Valadon, his close friend and nude model and lover, and mother of Maurice Utrillo (whose father may have been Puvis). According to Paula, as quoted by Martin Gayford, Valadon posed not only for Puvis but also for Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir. Degas collected her drawings: far better than her paintings, says Paula. Susanna Lang, one of Yves Bonnefoy’s early poetry translators, has written about Valadon’s Woman with a Double-Bass in a book of poems on women painters called Self-Portraits.
Posing for months on end for one statuette, with great pride and high hopes that it would be completed and cast and displayed in a glass case, Pauline watched the artist desperately try to improve and complete it. No such luck. Talking of models in general, Degas says: ‘most of them are just poor girls who have a demanding job and barely make enough to live on…. I know them well, you know, the little rats, from the time when they used to come and pose for me’. Without a footnote, not all readers will know that, as I mentioned earlier, the phrase was the nickname for the girls in the corps de ballet at the Opera. The studio models are indeed selling their bodies, not for sex, but for copying and, in Pauline’s case, a touch of immortality. Models knew each other, says Paul Valéry, and ‘carried from studio to studio points of view and arguments, sowing in the ear of one the overheard banter of another’.
Women. We learned from the printed information at the 2017 Degas centenary show in the National Gallery that he sometimes dipped his pastels in water to soften them – which intrigued Paula, as it was news to her. He also said that nudes in painting hitherto presupposed an audience (think of Ingres’s Grande odalisque: There was a grisaille version in the adjacent show on monochrome art), whereas with his own work ‘it’s as if you looked through a keyhole’, which suggests a voyeur and does not do himself justice since the work incarnates and generates dignity and respect for his painted and sculpted women. ‘Degas plainly loved women’, writes Julian Barnes in Keeping an Eye Open, agreeing with de Kooning and Vollard but not with Donald Kuspit, who sees Degas as an expressionist and misogynist. Perhaps Barnes’ phrase should be glossed as ‘Degas’s work loves women’ and maybe that is what Julian means, because it is not evident that the painter himself loved women, in any real sense of the condition, although Jeff Nagy, translator of Degas and his Model, heavily criticised Barnes’s LRB review of the book in a letter to the journal about perceptions of female interiority. The evident weariness of the models is caused by the long and difficult pose, which effectively stands in for the actual labour of dancing or practising at the bar.
Remember, Camille Laurens tells us that Degas observed wealthy voyeurs closely. He was not one himself, nor do I think it is useful to conceptualise artists painting from the model, including Paula, as voyeurs. Too much else is going on. And yet I suppose the word voyeur (coined in 1889) can, however, be applied non-pejoratively — or at least it is so common a cultural practice that it has changed its meaning — to artists who have used nude models, from Titian and Giorgione and later Goya via Ingres and Manet (there is a direct line from Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Goya’s Naked Maja to the French painter’s Olympia) and Degas himself, to Lucian Freud, Marlene Dumas and Alice Neel – and to Paula on rare occasions. As the nude figure myself in a few works, including the cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis — which has a passing resemblance to Degas’s Rest, an 1879 monotype of a prostitute with raised legs – I can report that there was no frisson. Nor is Degas’s libido on display: he is not Rodin or Kitaj. He is not leering, not getting a buzz. And we ourselves have no frisson when we look at his work, which rescues us from the charge made by some critics that the viewer of the picture is complicit in classic voyeurism. Instead, one can say that one of Degas’s major subjects is the very act or process of looking — the male gaze, the naked eye — upon the female form, clothed or unclothed. He puts it another way, and once again is unfair to himself: ‘People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes’ and ‘The dancer is nothing but a pretext for drawing.’
None of the women were idealised as beauties. Degas’ images are sensual but chaste, and suggest compassion for the human. They are utterly truthful in their compositional necessity and therefore beautiful. Even the laundresses are dancers, just as Paula’s ostriches are ballet dancers. The lonely and seemingly detached Degas is strikingly modern and prefigures Sickert and Auerbach and even Paula, although the image is mirrored, the tables turned, when it comes to her gaze, and I know whereof I speak. It is not surprising that she loves his work (and, as touched on earlier, some of the gestures in her paintings seem to nod or bow in the direction of the pastel maestro). It takes one master of pastel drawing/painting to know another. Victor Willing always encouraged Paula to draw and may have encouraged her to look at a master of graphic art, Ingres, whom she reveres.
For sure, working in pastel plays (as it did with Degas and also Kitaj who took to pastel after looking at Degas) to Paula’s greatest gift: drawing. However, Paula’s later use of home-made mannequins has in a way overtaken preparatory drawing: two roads to the built-up area, or building up the area: making dollies and preparatory drawing. ‘Draw a lot. Oh the beauty of drawing!’ Ingres told Degas: ‘Study drawing. Draw lots of lines, either from memory or from nature.’ However, on another occasion, the older painter told him after seeing his portfolio: ‘Excellent! Young man, never work from nature. Always from memory, or from the engravings of the masters.’
Cambridge. On October 7 2017 Paula and I went to Cambridge to see Jane Munro’s wondrous Degas show, so intelligently curated in terms of his antecedents, contemporaries and legacy. I know what Paula got out of the show, apart from pleasure: reinforcement of her courage to continue with her painting and drawing and print-making. She looked closely at Degas’s pastels — which Francis Bacon greatly admired — and sketches and prints. I imagine the grumpy old genius in heaven: he has finally conceded to Emile Zola that the novelist was right about Dreyfus and he himself was wrong. On the side he has brokered a peace treaty between Zola and Cézanne, although new evidence suggests that their friendship was highly stressed but not shattered by publication of The Masterpiece in which the painter hero Lantier is a composite of Manet, Monet and Cézanne.
Walking slowly through the galleries, I felt humble and proud to have Paula on my arm, as I learned from her comments about the works, comments deeply informed by practice and study. In the final room, was Kitaj’s beautiful drawing of Degas on his death-bed. A fortnight later was the tenth anniversary of the death of Kitaj, but he belongs in another book, a short one about our correspondence, which is in preparation, with the full blessing of the painter himself and his assistant Tracy Bartley. Another picture in the final room at the Fitzwilliam is Freud’s naked portrait of Celia Paul. We bought two copies of Jane’s catalogue and will study it in our own ways.
Later: the catalogue includes an essay by Anna Gruetzner Robins which traces a lineage I worked out for myself: from Degas via Sickert to Bacon, Freud, Auerbach and Kitaj, and, I would add, Paula. The photographer Muybridge was a key influence on Degas and Bacon. Sickert’s Trapeze partly derives from Degas’s Miss Lala, a painting which, Richard Thomson suggests, draws on the trope of the Assumption of Mary and deploys, according to Degas, ‘a real effect by false means’. Even later: Delphine Lévy discusses the lineage from Degas via Sickert and Coldstream to Paula and others in her important book on Sickert, La Provocation et l’Enigme.
Returning home on the train, we played an old game: who are Paula’s favourite/best artists? Goya, Velasquez, Manet, Douanier Rousseau, Van Gogh, Degas, Hogarth, Daumier, Doré, Picasso, Max Ernst, Edward Burra, Ensor, Gorky, Miro: the last six all associated with surrealism. To this list, one must add Paula’s favourite film makers Bunuel and Disney, the latter rated by her on the strength of his early films, as being among the greatest artists of the twentieth century in any medium. Paula has gone off Dali but I am not about to revise the wording of my prose poem about our travels ‘European Hours’ in order to take into account this change of mind or heart. As for Dawn Adès’ 2017 show at the Royal Academy: the counter-intuitively appropriate pairing of Dali and Duchamp is of little interest to Paula these days, so I went on my own and was mightily impressed by both artists and Dawn’s conceptual framework. It worked a treat(ment). “Art is a habit-forming drug”, said Duchamp, and “to be avoided”…
Back in London, we took the short walk from Kings Cross to the Eurostar at St Pancras and went upstairs to Searcy’s for a drink and starter snacks before heading home, elated, in miserable weather. Here, we discussed yet again the dreads and sorrows which sometimes afflict Paula, and which is on the public record. I told her what she already knows, that these need to be “managed” proactively, not passively coped with. This is easier said than done. Paula’s will-power and courage always enabled her to conquer them. We hugged, then Paula took my arm and we found a taxi.
• Manet •
Manet’s Olympia is the ‘sacred horror’ of her presence, a presence whose simplicity is that of absence.
—Paul Valéry quoted and glossed by Georges Bataille
Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia were perhaps the first ‘museum’ paintings, the first paintings in European art that were less a response to the achievement of Giorgione, Raphael and Velasquez than an acknowledgment…of the new and substantial relationship of painting to itself, as a manifestation of the existence of museums and the particular reality and interdependence that paintings acquire in museums.
— Michel Foucault
Victorine Meurent. V.R. (Vesna) Main’s first novel, A Woman with No Clothes On, tells the story of Victorine Meurent. Meurent is most famous as the nude or naked woman (see John Berger and Kenneth Clark for well known discussion of the terms, and more generally, Beth Archer Brombert’s Manet: Rebel in a Frock-coat and Michael Fried’s Manet’s Modernism) in Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia, paintings which both draw on Titian.
Playing the central role in two of the key sites at the origins of modernism in painting, Meurent, already a professional model when Manet met her but completely untypical of the young women in this field, later became a painter in her own right. She also sat for Degas and even showed at the Salon when Manet himself was not accepted — her work was more academic. She was forgotten until recent recovery by critics including Eunice Lipton, whose research Main draws on for her novel. There are good reasons for us, unlike Manet’s early biographers, to suppose that a) she was not a prostitute and b) she was not a mistress of the painter, but she did think she could learn from the master and it seems very likely that they discussed painting in a serious way. Olympia: what you see is what you get, take me or leave me. Paying her way. But what is Victorine herself, Manet’s favourite model, thinking as Olympia stares, cool and unashamed, at the painter, the viewer and the punter? A whimsical question, a trivial question, but coming from me, ‘posed’ with an element of professional curiosity for about three seconds. Perhaps: ‘He’s allowed to paint me naked but I’m not allowed to paint him.’ Olympia, the painting not the woman, was temporarily renamed Laure for a 2019 d’Orsay exhibition of black models in painting, putting the focus on the black servant holding the bunch of flowers. Very few of her own paintings survived her historical neglect. Her self-portrait is on show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Like Degas, Manet is a direct influence on Paula: see his Mlle V and Gilles and The Dead Toreador, for example, and he himself was deeply influenced by Goya and Velasquez, as is Paula, and I only have to mention Picasso to have Paula’s favourite painters all in one sentence. It is interesting to reflect on what Michael Fried admits is a possible anachronism, namely that the (professional) relationship between Meurent and Manet is reminiscent of that between Antonioni and Monica Vitti. The film couple, however, were lovers. Fried also tells us that Meurent has been identified as a photographic model, and that the picture can be read as a painting of a photograph. This raises huge questions not at stake here. Fried’s other books include one on photography – the most interesting chapter is a valuable gloss on Sontag and, in particular, Barthes. Reading Fried’s and Main’s and other works on Manet one cannot but focus one’s mind on the relationship between painter and model (especially where the model is in many paintings), their inter-subjectivity. I know that when I am in position as a model, I swivel my eyes and look at Paula out of curiosity and also with emotion: I and Thou, Thou and I, although I, her Thou, am/is also an It in Buberian terms (let alone Rimbaud’s or Sigmund Freud’s), and one has no choice if Paula is to make the picture work. Posing for her is a pleasure and a privilege but there are moments when your mind wanders and your eye wanders and you wonder how long you can hold the pose without moving. Answer: you can move for a few seconds, while the painter’s eye is on the canvas not on you.
Damourette. Check out online the once-shocking painting by Henri Gervex, Rolla (in the Musée d’Orsay). The man and woman have spent the night together; the woman’s clothes are piled up on the floor, suggestive of haste. The man is at the window, shedding light, as in a Balthus painting. My original interest was in the reclining woman and the pile of clothes, but what struck me, after a delayed reaction followed by a Eureka moment, was that the man bears a remarkable resemblance to General Miramon, the figure in the left hand panel in the National Gallery version of the ‘Execution of Emperor Maximilian’, a painting which gave Manet so much trouble as he struggled with the politics of history. Even the shirt of the executed general reminds one of the shirt in ‘Rolla’, as Vesna Main said after I told her about my discovery. It is surely the same model, and he bears a strong resemblance to Miramon himself in the photograph by Charles Reutlinger which we find in John Elderfield’s book Manet and the Execution of Maximilian.
I fantasise that Manet chose him because of his resemblance to his direct precursor in Goya’s The Third of May 1808, a picture Manet knew from the Prado or from reproductions or both. Great credit is due to Degas for gathering all the parts he could find of the picture, which was cut up and dispersed after Manet died. The fragments are now in the National Gallery.
Elderfield writes that Manet’s friend the violinist Damourette posed for the figure and that Manet presumably painted the head from this photograph. But he quotes a nineteenth-century writer on Manet, Théodore Duret, as saying that Manet ‘altered’ the head of the friend who posed for Miramon. However, the male figure in Gervex’s painting and Manet’s ten years earlier suggest that the head did not need much changing and that Elderfield’s ‘presumably’ is wrong.
Is it possible, given the shirt, that Gervex wants us to spot the resemblance? His painting is in the same territory as Manet’s Nana and indeed Zola’s novel Nana, and created a great scandal. Later still: Michael Fried is, in my opinion, over-cautious in an email: “it seems possible”.
I mentioned my discovery to my friend Beth Archer Brombert, whose Manet identifies the woman in the picture as Ellen Andrée, also found in Degas’s L’Absinthe. Beth strongly backs my hunch and suggests that Gervex did not use a model at all but copied Manet’s painting. This has to be right. It is a homage to Gervex’s friend Manet. So Beth and I have solved a problem no one knew existed. Some years ago the Marlborough Gallery were selling privately a Van Gogh painting from his Arles period, The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital, for thirty five million dollars, and I knew from John Erle-Drax, Paula’s elegant and sophisticated dealer at the time, that the picture, which hadn’t been seen in public for over forty years, was upstairs in the private section of the gallery, namely the London pied-à-terre of the then chairman of the Marlborough, the Duke of Beaufort. I asked John if I could show it to a friend as a surprise and he said yes. At the appointed time I took Beth and her husband the literary critic and scholar Victor Brombert to see it. The expression on her face was a picture. She, like everyone else, had only seen it in reproduction. This Van Gogh had only had one owner and was in its original frame and looked like it was painted yesterday. John joked that we could have a discount.
The light emanating from this masterpiece was breath-turning, in Celan’s phrase. Neither the impressionist nor the Nabi of some accounts, Van Gogh has more in common with Munch: there is an ’eminently tragic quality’ to the expressiveness of both men (the phrase is Klee’s concerning of Van Gogh’s paintings in general). Their brilliance as colourists and, especially in Van Gogh’s case, as a draughtsman, made possible the fixing of the psychic depths they had rare access to: artistic skill and human insight, as always, generating each other. To me, Van Gogh is one of the greatest painters ever, and his letters are one of my talismanic books, one of the best books, perhaps the best book, on the creative process.
Méry Laurent and Suzon. Méry Laurent is a significant figure: she had been a courtesan (much higher in the pecking order than simple prostitutes) and became Manet’s model and mistress, as well as the mistress of Mallarmé and a source for Proust’s Odette, one of the greatest and most individuated characters in a book chock-full of them. Another figure of considerable interest is Berthe Morisot, the subject of two of Manet’s finest paintings, the portrait with flowers and The Balcony. The mourners at Berthe’s funeral were headed by a mighty quartet: Degas, Mallarmé, Renoir and Manet, the last-named her brother-in-law, since she married the brother of the painter she loved and who loved her. The mirrored reflection in Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergères, shows a woman in white, modelled by Méry Laurent. (Mery Laurent is not the barmaid, but is the small woman in white up in the balcony, visible in the detail here.)
To her left is a woman with binoculars, further contributing to the hyper-modernity of this amazing picture. She is at the same angle as the man in the top hat whom the barmaid, Suzon, is supposed to be facing but cannot be. The woman facing the man is and is not the same woman facing us. I note that 1) the disjunction/displacement emphasises that we the viewers are in the ‘position’ of the dominant male, indeed we are ‘in’ the picture, and 2) the binoculars amount to a jocular comment on the artifice of the picture, as do the feet (of an acrobat?) in the top left of the picture. The girl is somewhere else. This is not a portrait. ‘She’ is in the studio being painted by a great artist with a proud understanding of alienation and loneliness, and a deep awareness of how we perceive experience and experience perception. Velasquez hovers behind Manet, as I have said: there is a line from the Spanish genius via Goya and Manet directly to Paula, several of whose paintings are in this territory.
From time to time Paula and I discuss who inaugurated modernism in the arts, particularly poetry and painting. Mallarmé and Manet, mutually involved, are indisputably candidates, and not only because of their Raven, the first livre d’artiste, which I saw in Kitaj’s house in Los Angeles, along with a complete set of Manet’s prints. Yes, Manet is up there with Degas, in the captain’s tower, where modern art begins.
AR: You said the other day that Las Meninas is the greatest painting ever.
PR: I never said that.
AR: Yes you did.
PR: (Laughing, her perversity unmasked) Oh well, that’s what I thought when I said it.
I cannot remember what painting replaced the Velasquez in her eyes, quite likely a Goya or Picasso. Iberia rules OK, in Paula’s imaginaire. Consistency, as Emerson said, is the hobgoblin of small minds.
• Pre-Raphaelites •
Paula’s favourite painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is Augustus Leopold Egg. Older than the main members, Egg was a link back to Hogarth, and a friend of Richard Dadd and Charles Dickens. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites look, and therefore are, completely different to me now that I have Paula’s (and Duchamp’s) admiration for them hooked into my imaginaire, just as it has been shown that water at the same temperature in winter and summer feels different to the dipper.
This interest in their work was instilled by Paula early on since, in an undated letter to her (around 2002), I added a p.s.: ‘Do you remember the pomegranate in Rossetti’s Proserpina? I wonder what the Victorians made of that.’ After we had been around the grand Blake show at Tate Britain in 2019, Paula said we must pop upstairs and take a look at the three Augustus Egg paintings. To our surprise we learned later from the painter Arturo Di Stefano that Max Beckmann greatly admired Blake: ‘noble emanation of English genius.’ Andrea Rose in her tough-minded book Pre-Raphaelite Portraits argues that the representations of early Hollywood vamps like Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo were influenced heavily by the Pre-Raphaelites. She finds the portraits the Pre-Raphaelites painted sentimental and that they were best as illustrators. She has less time for Fanny Cornforth than I have. Maybe I too am being sentimental.
Lizzie Siddal. Lizzie Siddal, lover and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, appears in many paintings and sketches, as well as in poems by him and one by her future sister-in-law, Christina, In an Artist’s Studio:
One face looks out from all his canvases…
He feeds upon her face by day and night
…which seems to prefigure the extraordinary ‘Goblin Market’. Rossetti himself in ‘The Portrait’ writes revealingly:
This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.
Alan Wall writes about her brother’s obsession with her (image and person) in an essay on the little people in ‘Goblin Market’, referencing Randy Newman’s song ‘Short People’, Snow White’s dwarfs and the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. The two films, if not the song, are among the many tales in the great store room which is Paula’s imagination. ‘Goblin Market’ would, in theory and indeed in practice, be perfect for Paula to illustrate and various people including Marina Warner have encouraged the idea – Lila would have played the two sisters Laura and Lizzie — but, says Paula drily, “it’s already been done”. However, had she really wanted to proceed, earlier visual manifestations by Dante Gabriel, Arthur Rackham and others would not have stopped her. After all, she has painted other stories which have been ‘done’, including episodes from Little Red Riding Hood (here speaks your friendly neighbourhood wolf) and Peter Pan. ‘Goblin Market’ would have been a perfect story for an artist admired by Paula, Bruno Schulz, to illustrate. Frederick Sandys illustrated Christina’s poignant and lovely poem ‘If’. Rego’s Artist in her Studio bears what I suspect is an accidental resemblance to the pose of Fannie Cornforth in the image by Frederick Sandys.
The poet Gillian Allnutt has written sequences inspired by Lizzy Siddal and Paula Modersohn-Becker. A dip into the German artist’s correspondence reveals that, perhaps surprisingly, she knew the work of Christina’s brother, Dante Gabriel. An English translation of Marie Darriusseuq’s beautiful book on the other Paula, Etre ici est une splendeur, finally appeared and I gave it to Paula who read it quickly and with much interest, as did Lila, to whom I also gave a copy. As I was leaving Modersohn-Becker’s major exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne in Paris in 2016, Yves Bonnefoy called me from hospital on my mobile to visit him earlier than arranged because he was tired. This was the last time he and I met.
Lizzy Siddal died aged thirty-three in the bleak midwinter of 1862 — and Gillian has imagined a journal written in the last year of the model’s short and tragic life (collected in How the Bicycle Shone). Siddal was the daughter of an ironmonger, but her marriage certificate states that her father was an optician, presumably a more middle class trade than ironmonger, notwithstanding the solid respectability of the latter. She sat for several members of the brotherhood. Her most famous images include Millais’s Ophelia — she nearly died of pneumonia as a result — and, posthumously, her husband’s Beata Beatrix, that is the Beatrice of the great poet he was named after. Lizzy was Dante Gabriel’s first muse and he encouraged her own work as an artist but, according to Allnutt, she complained that no one cared about her soul but merely wanted to paint her, improving her appearance. (cf James Joyce and Billy Connolly and the stories about the tie). Dante Gabriel must have had her face off by heart when he painted Beata Beatrix or copied it from one of the vast number of drawings he made. Gillian Allnutt’s sequence ends
I, Lizzie, once a girl
growing up in the Old Kent Road
give my soul
to my father
when I am dead.
Beata Beatrix officially portrays Dante Aligheiri’s dying Beatrice, but the picture is at the same time an idealised portrait of Lizzie and a representation of her final years and sickness and death from an overdose of laudanum which had also poisoned her still-born child and was probably intentional. Rossetti’s account of the picture in his letter to William Morris talks of Beatrice. But we are dealing here with a kind of auto-fiction, autobiographical truth conflated with the idealised historical figure of Beatrice as figured in the Vita Nuova (translated by Rossetti the year before she died, the second full English translation) and the Divine Comedy. Such paintings raise issues which interest me as the model of someone with whom I also have a non-professional relationship, and the extent to which the character played also represents some aspect of myself and my private or off-stage relationship with Paula, although fortunately our situation is entirely benign. Celia Paul’s print The Bride and her Painter and Model raise related issues concerning her and Lucian Freud, but they are two painters, not writer and painter.
Rossetti’s St Catherine, commissioned by Ruskin and modelled by Lizzie in 1857, is an interesting picture in that it portrays a painter painting the martyr as well as the martyr herself. Ruskin asked him to paint the saint but I think that Jan Marsh in her book on Rossetti goes too far in suggesting (even ‘with hindsight’) that the picture portrays her being broken on the wheel of Gabriel’s indecision about their relationship, unless it is an intentionally comic exaggeration. However, his pictures around this time deal with his ambivalence concerning her. As for the famous episode of the poems he buried with Lizzy in the Highgate cemetery grave, only to dig them up later: ‘you now think – and I quite agree with you – that there is no reason why the self-sacrifice should have no term’, wrote DGR’s brother in a letter. The double negative is a giveaway. And yet…
The primary focus of the 2018 exhibition at the National Gallery, curated by Alison Smith and Susan Foister, Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, was the influence on the Pre-Raphaelites of the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, that masterpiece of the North European renaissance. Van Eyck’s portrait had arrived in London in time for the brotherhood to learn from it. They utterly disliked what they saw as the empty gesturing (‘over-blown, rhetorical and meaningless’, in the phrase of the accompanying film, describing their view) of typical pictures in the National Gallery such as Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus, which has a remarkable status: Number One in the National Gallery’s catalogue. It is a paradox that Paula loves not only the pre-Raphaelites – despite the charge against them of being mere illustrators, as Brian Sewell said of her – but also the ‘decadent’ Italian Renaissance paintings they despised: in her own way she has made a personal synthesis of North European and South European art. Of course she sees the pictures differently from the way the brotherhood did. As Borges wrote: ‘Without a doubt Hamlet is more complex now than when Shakespeare originated him. [Hamlet] has been enriched by Coleridge, by Bradley, by Goethe, by so many people.’
The exhibition contained a beautiful drawing by Lizzie Siddal herself of the Lady of Shalott at her loom: the weaving goes wrong and the mirror is cracking. She is distracted by Lancelot unseen outside the window. There is no requirement to read autobiography into the picture… The show also contains a fine copy by John Philip from 1862, scaled up, of a detail from Las Meninas, included because Velasquez himself was influenced by Van Eyck’s portrait, then in Madrid in the royal collection of which he was the keeper, not least the use of the mirror. Mirrors, mostly convex, are central to many of the works on display, including the belated Still Life with Self-Portrait by Mark Gertler, where he paints himself into the mirror which is one of the objects in the still life. Paula and I particularly loved the William Orpen paintings and a marvellous sketch by Holman Hunt for his painting of the Lady of Shalott. Paula stood in front of this sketch for a long time, longer than the actual painting next to it, as indeed she did for the sketch for Millais’s Mariana. Truly, graphics are what draw Paula. We looked carefully at Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience. The model for this was Hunt’s fiancée Annie Miller, whose life and times were colourful enough, albeit less so than Lizzie Siddal’s.
This is the kind of show, all done with mirrors, which gives curatorial concepts a good name. In this season of John Ashbery’s death, I am reminded of his ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ (the famous picture by Parmigianino):
…his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed
…a picture that merits some attention in the present context. Yes, the ‘trouble’ with this kind of show is that it reminds one of so many other paintings, thus it directs me to Gumpp’s Self-Portrait (which I used on the jacket of my book Zigzag) and Bonnard’s Self-portrait in a Bathroom Mirror, which materialises the mirror the artist has to use to make a self-portrait, that is a hairbrush stands in for a paint brush, as it does in a later self-portrait from 1938-40 and clearly alludes to the paintings he made of his wife Marthe in the bath. The final self-portrait is dated 1943-1946 and what could be a picture frame, but probably is not, is visible in the picture. Either way, it has an emblematic and valedictory quality, given the unusually long gestation period and the fact that Marthe died in 1942. ‘Painting, said Bonnard, ‘is the transcription of the adventures of the optic nerve’, a modern thought which like his self-portrait contradicts Picasso’s view that ‘Bonnard is the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one’ and Duchamp’s dismissive ‘retinal aspect’.
Fanny Cornforth. Another of Rossetti’s models, second only to Lizzy, was Fanny Cornforth, whom he met in 1858 and supported for twenty five years, and who was his housekeeper for some of them. It is interesting to look at The Blue Bower painted at a time when Dante Gabriel knew Manet personally. He did not like Manet’s art and, at the same time, was jealous of him. Even so, he encouraged Manet to send him paintings, one of which was accepted by the RA: the model’s full frontal gaze is unusual in DGR’s work, and was perhaps influenced by the greater painter’s Olympia. Vesna Main, an authority on Victorine Meurent, the model for the painting, does not agree about the influence. Either way, Rossetti knew that Manet was a genius and his generosity to the greater artist is a tribute to his better nature, which was real enough. Manet’s reworking of Venus of Urbino ‘swerves away’ from Titian, in the phrase of Elizabeth Prettejohn (Modern Painters, Old Masters), unlike Rossetti’s Fazio’s Mistress, his reworking of Titian’s Woman in a Mirror. Prettejohn characterises Rossetti’s poetry translations as involving generous and competitive imitation, which is also true of some of his paintings.
In his painting Lady Lilith (‘Adam’s Talmudic witch-wife’ – ‘Talmudic’ is Kathryn Hughes’ highly shorthand way of saying Lilith is not mentioned in the bible, as recounted in her colourful, raunchy and sometimes jokey essay on Fanny Cornforth in Victorians Undone), Rossetti retains what would once have been called the fuller figure of the model but replaces Fanny’s face by that of one of his favourite models Alexa Wilding (the others being Fanny, Lizzie and Jane Morris), doubtless because Alexa was younger and prettier than Fanny, and unintentionally reminding one that Lilith herself was replaced in Adam’s affections by pre-Fall Eve, who was more compliant sexually, although in a reversal of Rossetti, less beautiful than Lilith. But, as Hughes says, these pictures are not portraits — any more than Paula’s paintings of me and Lila are officially portraits, although sometimes the characters we play double as portraits, clearly reflecting the centrality of the models in Paula’s life as well as work, sometimes with a high percentage of overlap: thus, Lila in ‘Angel’ and me in ‘Perch’.
Nor are the Pre-Raphaelite paintings illustrations. Kathryn Hughes says they are about their own making, art for art’s sake, luscious colour, almost abstract is the implication. I think she exaggerates. They may not be illustrations but they are, in the word Paula often uses, in the singular, of her practice: story. In 1860 Fanny sat for Burne-Jones as Sidonie von Bork, a fictional witch and femme fatale. While no wraith, she looks in good shape and has an appropriate expression on her face – given that this is a companion piece to Clara von Bork, who is Eve to Sidonie’s Lilith. Clara was modelled by Burne-Jones’s wife Georgie, and 1860 was the year of their marriage.
Fanny Cornforth was the daughter of a blacksmith, lower down the social scale from Lizzie’s father. Their small cottage can still be seen in Steyning near Brighton. She moved in with Rossetti as housekeeper (a more accurate description than ‘kept woman’) within days of Lizzie’s overdose and death, despite being married to her first husband. She lasted until 1868 when Rossetti, on taking up with Jane Morris, bestowed full respectability on Fanny by paying the rent for a house where she could take lodgers. She continued her relationship with Rossetti as non-live in companion and friend, out of affection and because she needed money. He would later paint pot boilers to enable her to buy the house in Royal Avenue, Chelsea.
Kathryn Hughes makes a persuasive case that Fanny had never been the full-on prostitute it suited some people to see her as. Although she may have rented out her body from time to time to make ends meet, thus a common woman in the parlance, she could less stressfully rent out rooms as a kept woman in her house. After Rossetti died, Fanny – like Alexa who, incidentally, was never his lover — remained faithful to his memory and kept together many of the gifts he gave her: they formed the basis of a major collection later on.
Hughes places much emphasis on Bocca Baciata (which she over-reads as a hymn to fellatio on the part of a connoisseur and practitioner), The Blue Bower and Found. Ruskin predictably hated Bocca Baciata while Swinburne’s phrasing was revealing: the picture was ‘more stunning than can be decently expressed’. Found, the unfinished picture which Fanny posed for the morning after she first met Rossetti, also predictably, outraged Ruskin, although it delighted Swinburne.
The way Fanny was treated after Rossetti’s final illness and death, and the fact that for decades, for reasons of social prejudice, she was written out of the published narratives of his life, was not Dante Gabriel’s doing and not what he would have wished. And when eventually, as late as 1949, an official and socially more respectable secret mistress was finally outed it was Jane Morris, wife of William, not Fanny, Jane of whom Henry James wrote: ‘It is hard to know whether she’s an original or a copy.’ Samuel Bancroft, an American art collector, alone deserves respect for being on Fanny’s side. The others played along with the exclusion from the public record. Their behaviour was unconscionable.
In his darkest times of mental torment following the recovery of his manuscript from Lizzie’s grave, it had been Fanny to whom Rossetti turned and, despite lack of cooperation from his brother, did all he could to support her. Not out of charity but because he depended on her. In its own way, theirs was a real relationship of love. But, poor, fat, vulgar and despised, Fanny Cornforth was not allowed to attend him at his death bed (when he called for her), nor at his funeral, despite having been his model and first lover from 1859, three years before Lizzy died, as well as being a respectable twice married woman and also, during one phase, a hotel-keeper “at the posh end of Jermyn Street”, presumably the St James’ end.
One lesson to be drawn from the changing nature of Rossetti’s pictures is that the look of models and the private relationship to the painter have an active influence on the artist’s work. This is just as clear in the case of Paula in respect of Lila and also myself. Without Lila no ‘Dogwomen’ and much else. Without me, no Amaro and certain other series, and especially the stand-alone ‘Olga’ and ‘Metamorphosis’. If Lila didn’t resemble Paula the relationship between them would have been very different. If Paula and I were not in a private relationship, her work would have taken a different direction.
I am not the first person to be fascinated by the “Pre-Raphaelite sisters”, in the affectionate reclamatory phrase of Jan Marsh, curator of the eponymous show at the National Portrait Gallery and editor of the catalogue where we learn that the wives recited poetry or, like the greatly likeable Georgiana Burne-Jones, sang to their husbands in the studio – a far cry from Paula’s fado and opera CDs. But I must say goodbye to my fellow models, my sisters, Fanny above all. How I would love to talk to them. A séance would come in handy (despite Paula’s disapproval of the technique), such as those Jo Hiffernan presided over at Dante Gabriel’s house, although it is not clear if the painter tried to approach Lizzie on these occasions, as he did on at least one occasion with Fanny, who succeeded in reaching Lizzie. Apparently, and counter-intuitively, Lizzie told Fanny she liked her, which was a good move on Fanny’s part. Fanny was a clever woman and throughout her life defended her patch as best she could. Mistress, model, studio assistant, housekeeper, clairvoyante, she is one of the most interesting models in the history of art. She died with or of dementia in a mental hospital near Chichester, about twenty miles from where she was born, in 1909.
ANTHONY RUDOLF is a writer, editor, translator, literary critic and, latterly. art writer. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres. His essay on poetry written and read in extreme situations was published in 2022 in the American magazine, Paideuma. His recent books include The Binding of Isaac [Rosenberg] and Pedraterra & Angleterre, two fables. His art writings include a National Gallery catalogue essay on R.B. Kitaj. He was the companion and principal male model of Paula Rego from 1996 until her death on June 8, 2022. He has completed a book about being her model.
Author’s notes: This previously unpublished text was to have appeared in my eventual book on being Paula’s model but I have dropped it, apart perhaps from the introduction, in order to shorten the book and for it to focus even more on Paula. It is now published privately in a small print edition and also online in The Fortnightly Review. My thanks to Martin Gayford for casting a professional’s eye on the final draft of this essay. And to Merlin James for thoughts on Bonnard, Frenhofer and many other painters over the years.
- In AboutFace, a UAL website.
- Frederic Raphael,’Aryan Ghetto of One: Should we still read the ‘filthy’ prose of Céline, the product of a poison pen?’, TLS, February 2, 2028.
- The Paris Review discussed Degas’s mystery model seven years ago.