A short history of the art model

Our naked selves have always been with us, but the nude art model is a relatively new phenomenon.

The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus), 1644, Diego Velázquez, courtesy National Gallery of London. He painted at least three nudes despite the official disapproval of the Spanish crown.
Although ancient Egyptians wore a minimal amount of clothing, nudity in their art meant a defenseless state, often representing the dead or vanquished foes. The earliest reference to figure modeling is a legend about the fifth-century BC Greek painter, Zeuxis. It was said that he couldn’t find a woman beautiful enough to represent Helen of Troy, so he used features from five models. He is also reputed to have died of laughter after an older, wealthy patron insisted on modeling for Aphrodite. There is no doubt that the Greeks used real models; the courtesan Phryne modeled for Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, the first life-size female nude in western art. Sadly, all these works are lost to us today.
The ancient Greeks also bequeathed us contrapposto, or counterpoise. This means the figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist from the hips and legs. 
Kritios Boy, c. 480 BC, is the first known example of contrapposto. Courtesy Acropolis Museum.
With the rise of Rome, art modeling disappeared in the west. It didn’t return until the late Renaissance. Michelangelo and Raphael started the study of the nude body. However, they didn’t intend to paint their models nude; they were just trying to understand the figure better for clothed painting.
In general, artists used their apprentices—always boys and young men—to model whatever figures they needed. There were exceptions, include Raphael, who made nude drawings of his mistress, and Lorenzo Lotto and Caravaggio, who used prostitutes as life models.
But in general, if non-apprentice models were used, they had a personal relationship to the artist. Many of these relationships are legendary: Rembrandtand his beloved Saskia, Botticelli and Simonetta Vespucci, Raphael and Margarita Luti. The working model, paid for his or her labors, did not yet exist.
Study of Kneeling Nude Girl for the Entombment, c. 1500-1501, black chalk, pen and ink, and white pigment on paper, Michelangelo. This is believed to be the first nude figure study in western art. Courtesy the Louvre.
The tension within Christendom about naked bodies was most extreme in the court of the art-loving Spanish King Philip IV, patron of Velázquez. Velázquez could paint the reclining Rokeby Venus under the king’s protection, because Philip owned many nudes himself. At the same time, painting or owning nudes—or even portraits in the fashionably-low necklines of the day—was officially discouraged.
In the 19th century, with the atelier system of training firmly established, professional artists’ models begin to appear. Olympe Pélissierwas a courtesan and model in Paris; she had been sold into sexual slavery twice as a teenage girl. Victorine Meurent (Édouard Manet’s Olympia) was a painter in her own right. Fanny Eaton was a Jamaican mixed-race charwoman who had a short, meteoric career modeling for the Pre-Raphaelites; her exotic features could represent a variety of characters. Fanny Cornforth was the model for, and mistress of, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Cornforth’s career was indicative of a disturbing trend that continued into the 20th century. Earlier artists painted women with whom they were intimate; the new artists became intimate with women they painted.
Study of a Seated Nude Woman Wearing a Mask, 1863-66, Thomas Eakins, courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art. Modesty in Victorian ateliers was preserved by a mask for women and a loincloth for men.
Even as the need for figure and anatomy studies was publicly acknowledged, prudishness dictated that men wore loincloths and women had their faces covered while modeling. By 1886, Thomas Eakins had been teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy for ten years. He had transformed it into the leading art school in America.
In January 1886, lecturing about anatomy to a mixed-gender class, Eakins removed a loincloth from a male model so that he could trace the musculature of the pelvis (which supports the back and, in turn, the whole human body). He was forced to resign.
The 20th century brought a decline in figure painting as an art form, largely due to the decline of, historical and narrative painting. Still, drawing the human figure from life is considered a great way to learn draftsmanship. This is in part because the hierarchy of genres considered people more important than landscape or objects. It’s also because we have a connection to other people.
I’ll be teaching a class about modeling for the Knox County Art Society on Saturday, September 7. For more information, see here.

Monday Morning Art School: The color of light

The season of mist and mellow fruitfulness is upon us. Let’s talk about the color of light.
Boys on the Beach, JoaquĂ­n Sorolla, 1908. There is warm light with cool shadows, but there’s also a strong warm reflection from the sand on which the figures are resting. 
What we call “light” is really the narrow band of electromagnetic waves that our retinas can perceive. This narrow band is comprised of the colors of the rainbow, or what we sometimes call ROY G BIV. (There really isn’t an indigo; it’s there so that Roy has a pronounceable surname.) Each of Roy’s color names corresponds to a specific wavelength. For example, blue is about 475 nm; red is about 650 nm.
Valencian Fishwives, JoaquĂ­n Sorolla, 1903. Here the light is cool and the shadows are warmer.
When the whole visible light spectrum strikes your eye at the same time, you perceive white. This is not a color in itself, but the admixture of a bunch of colors. In the real world, this is never a pure mix. The atmosphere bends light just like a prism does, so what you see is always tinted. The light might be gold and peach at sunset and blue at midday. Impurities in the atmosphere also give us the energetic indigo-violet of the far distant hills—the farther away something is, the more likely dust has filtered out the higher wavelengths (the warm colors).
Return from Fishing, JoaquĂ­n Sorolla, 1894. The light is warm, the shadows are cool, and the places where the light is going through the sails are warmer still, since they’re filtered by the off-white fabric.
Just as all the colors together form white light, the absence of light is total blackness. But unless you’re in a cave or darkroom, that’s a theoretical construct. There’s always reflected light bouncing around in the shadows, and that light gives the shadows its color. It’s never black and it’s unlikely to be grey, either.
Looking for Shellfish, JoaquĂ­n Sorolla, 1905. A warm light comes from our side of the figure, but there are warm shadows—the result of local color reflection from the rock. Likewise the bottom half of the torso reflects strong cool tones from the water and anchors the boy into the sea.
If the color of the light is essentially warm, the color of the shadows is almost always going to be cool, and vice-versa. Knowing this and identifying the color of the light and shadow is the first step to a good landscape painting.
Catalonia: the Tuna Catch, from Visions of Spain, JoaquĂ­n Sorolla, 1919. In this case, most of the painting is in shadow, and what light there is, is filtered through the yellow awning. It is the distortion of the light-dark color scheme that tells us viewers that we are in an enclosed space.
The exception to this is an object in filtered light. Its shadows and lighter passages will be variations of the same color temperature. This is how we instinctively know that something we’re seeing is under an awning, for example.
Study the Spanish painter JoaquĂ­n Sorollato understand the color of light. He was a master at painting white fabric in a variety of circumstances, and comparing the light passages to the shadow passages will tell you much about managing the color of light in your painting.
This post was originally published in 2015. Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me aboard the schooner American Eagle in late September.