THE WOMEN WHO INSPIRED
By Lucy Merello Peterson.
Pen & Sword Books. 180 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-52672-525-7
LITTLE DANCER AGED FOURTEEN: THE TRUE STORY BEHIND DEGAS’S MASTERPIECE
By Camille Laurens
Other Press. 166 pages. $33.95. ISBN 978-1-158051-858-5
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Does anyone really remember the models who posed for the famous, and not so famous, paintings and sculptures we come across in galleries? It may depend, of course, on how you define “model”. We know the names of the often-titled ladies and gentlemen who commissioned portraits from fashionable artists of the period concerned. The viewer was meant to know who the person portrayed was. The walls of town halls and other civic buildings are lined with pictures of one-time Lord Mayors and other worthies. We know their names, and perhaps those of the painters, but does it matter? A dullness has descended on the portraits that is almost impossible to remove.
There were many other models, of course, and some are remembered because they were the wives and mistresses of the artists. It was cheaper to use them than pay for professional models to turn up at the studios. But I must admit that often, when I think of a model, it tends to be the fairly anonymous hired-by-the-hour females ranging in ages from fourteen to forty and beyond, who stood for hours in sometimes cold and draughty rooms while earnest students and accomplished artists drew inspiration from their bodies.
I referred to females, and there were male models, though on the
whole it is the women who are written about. In many cases, however,
even they lack any real identity. No-one remembers the names of most
of the models who posed in provincial art schools, or even in those
in major cities like
Lucy Merello Peterson takes a broad view of what “model” means, But there is, possibly, something of a parallel to be drawn between the case of Germaine Gargallo and that of Cecilia Dennis, who had modelled for Mark Gertler. He committed suicide, but had claimed that the portrait he was working on would be his “finest picture yet”. Peterson says that it “seems unlikely, given his body of work, but it was a story told by the sitter many times over”. What later happened to Dennis isn’t documented by Peterson, but she does add: “As for public recognition, she was yet another artists’ model known almost solely through misfortune”.
Using Peterson’s wide-ranging definition of “model” it’s easy to see that many of them can be identified and named. After all, as mentioned earlier, they were often the wives and mistresses of the artists. Gwen John really doesn’t need her associations with other artists to justify her existence. She was a talented painter in her own right, though it has taken time for her quiet canvases to be given their due recognition. But it’s a fact that she had an ill-fated affair with the sculptor, Rodin.
Nina Hamnett, who showed great promise in her early days but later declined into alcoholism and a role in the Fitzrovia and Soho bohemias of the 1930s and 1940s, acted as a model for Gaudier-Brzeska who famously sculpted her torso. She was also a model for Walter Sickert and Roger Fry and both painted portraits of her. It would be a pity, however, if she was only remembered for these links. Denise Hooker’s splendid biography, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia,(Constable, 1986) has numerous reproductions of her paintings and drawings and demonstrates how talented she was.
There is information about the dreadful Patricia Preece who posed
seductively for Stanley Spencer, led him a merry dance which caused
him to divorce his wife and marry Preece, and then deprived him of
his house and money while she continued her lesbian relationship
with Dorothy Hepworth. Peterson suggests that the paintings Preece
exhibited under her own name may have been created by Hepworth. They
had met while students at the Slade, and had received encouragement
from members of the Bloomsbury Group. According to Peterson, Preece
and Hepworth “spent four years studying in
Peterson inevitably writes about the
Following these familiar (too familiar, some might say) names, it’s
a relief to turn to the Avico sisters,
Marietta, Leopoldine, and Gilda, who figure prominently on
the cover of the book, but are dealt with in a chapter at the end of
it. All three worked as models, in one way or another.
Gilda modelled for Ivon Hitchens and C.R.W. Nevinson, as well as for
life classes, and she was also involved with commercial photography.
The photograph on page 132 might well be classified as a “glamour
girl” pose and shows off her long legs. Leopoldine “earned a
reputation for absolute professionalism at the
The Women Who Inspired London Art is lively and packs in a lot of information about artists and their models. It’s not surprising that Lucy Merello Peterson largely relies on fairly well-known names. The information about the no-doubt many obscure models who posed for life classes or for individual artists, themselves now often forgotten, simply doesn’t exist. Even if a name or two can be found in an old notebook or other document, it won’t tell us much, if anything, about the person concerned, and where they came from and what happened to them later.
With regard to the young girl who was the model for the famous Degas
sculpture, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” we do have a name, though
not much else. She was Marie Geneviéve Van Goethem. Her parents were
Belgian, but Marie was born in
Marie also joined the Paris Opera as a “little rat”, though her career never took off and she was eventually dismissed because of her poor attendance record at rehearsals. Laurens is quite clear about the reason for her mother enrolling her at the Paris Opera: “An auxiliary source of income was therefore available to the little Opera rat”, in the form of what could be earned by catering to the tastes of the often-wealthy men who hung around the Paris Opera: “Backstage, procurement was the quasi-official function of a mother, who was expected to ‘present’ her daughter to male admirers”. Nobody, including the police, seemed concerned about paedophilia.
Degas could be observed backstage, though in his case his concern was to sketch the dancers as they practised their steps and poses. He didn’t glamorise what they did. It was hard, tiring work and the weariness it brought on in its young practitioners can be seen in his drawings and paintings.
Maria had modelled for Degas before “The Little Dancer” and has been identified in some of his other works. And he made a number of preparatory sketches for his sculpture. Did he portray Marie as she really was, or was the sculpted figure deliberately given a certain kind of facial appearance? It certainly aroused some strong reactions when it was displayed. Laurens writes about nineteenth century notions of the way in which physical appearance could be related to class, and to propensities for crime and violence. And she adds: “The face of the Little Dancer undeniably has some of the features identified by the phrenologists and medical anatomists of the day as typically criminal: a sloping forehead, a protruding jaw, prominent cheekbones, thick hair”. It was not a face likely to match up to bourgeois ideas of beauty.
The general response to Degas’s sculpture when it was on display in 1881 was largely hostile, and he then kept it in his studio and refused to sell it. It was only after his death that twenty-two bronze casts (the original was wax) were manufactured and circulated to various museums and private collections. Laurens refers to this action as “a quick and dirty decision by Degas’s heirs, which showed little respect for the artist’s personality and wishes”. There was money to be made.
Laurens charts the history of The Little Dancer and informs us about nineteenth-century Paris, Degas’s personality, some of his contemporaries, and similar matters. What she can’t do, of course, is tell us a great deal about Marie. Nor what went on in the studio as she posed and he worked. “Did Degas talk to Marie during the first modelling sessions”, Laurens asks, and the simple answer is that we don’t know. He presumably had to give her some basic instructions about how to pose, but as he was famously less than sociable he may not have gone any further than that. Laurens is a novelist and likes to suggest what could have taken place.
There were reports that Marie was sometimes seen in the Chat Noir
and other Montmartre hang-outs, and she may have been in