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.

The trouble with nocturnes

Modern nocturnes document only the contrast between bright lights and the void. There are so many other cool things that go bump in the night.

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, c. 1872-1875, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Yesterday, a student was describing a late-evening sky she had seen, with the objects bathed in an unusual warm light. “I’m sick of nocturnes always being done in Prussian blue fading to black,” she complained. Since she has an MA in art history and works in a gallery, she’s not talking through her hat.

“We always paint nocturnes wearing headlamps,” said another student. “The human eye takes about 25 minutes to fully adapt from bright sunlight to complete darkness, and the headlamp continuously interrupts that. Cameras lie, too, about what darkness looks like.”
The Polish Rider, 1655, Rembrandt van Rijn 
She had just explained the technical problem with painting nocturnes in a nutshell. They are driven by our current technology—headlamps and easel lights—just as the high contrast of Frederic Remington’s nocturnes were driven by camera technology of his day. Headlamps and easel lights exaggerate the contrast between dark and light because they’re constantly stimulating our eyes to stay in a photopic(daylight) state.
Winter, Midnight, 1894, Childe Hassam
Human night vision is limited to discriminating between different values of black and white, and the resolution and contrast are poorer. But there are many steps between light and true darkness, and most nocturnes are in fact painted using mesopicvision, which we use when we’re faced with a combination of lighting.
Moonlight, Ralph Albert Blakelock
When we transition from day to night, our eyes create photopigments in the cones and rods to increase sensitivity. The adaptation period is different for rod and cone cells. Cone cells can do this in about ten minutes of darkness, but rods require between 30-45 minutes. There are, of course, differences in how fast each of us can make the adaptation. Old age, as with so many other things, slows us down.
Snow in New York, 1902, Robert Henri
The transition from dark to light happens much more quickly. It takes about five minutes for the eyes to bleach out the photopigments they created to see in the dark.
The Call for Help, Frederic Remington
Humans are color-blind in true low-light situations. However, at twilight, when most nocturnes were painted, we suffer from something called the Purkinje shift. During the daytime, people are most sensitive to light that is greenish-yellow. At night, people are more sensitive to greenish-blue light.
The Tornado, 1835, Thomas Cole
The rods in our eyes (which are more light-sensitive and thus more important in low-light situations) respond best to green-blue light. The cones in the retina, which respond to colors, don’t work well in lower-light situations. As the light gets lower, our ability to see reds falls off.
Moonrise, 1894, David Davies
Scientists and tinkerers have long understood that red lights don’t trigger our eyes into photopic vision. That’s why they’re used in control rooms or the nocturnal animal displays at the zoo.  
Starry Night Over the RhĂ´ne, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh
Historically, nocturnes were about solitude, or sometimes, bad behavior. In our jazzed, electric world, they’re more likely to focus on lighting and energy. The modern nocturne is always a description of civilization overtaking nature. It is a brightly-lit subject set against an empty field of blackness. By definition, that’s urban, and it contrasts our desires against our fears. The best modern nocturnes create a place to go to escape encroaching darkness. I’d say there’s more to that than just how our eyes work, but our vision certainly plays a part.
Nocturnes are very popular right now, both with painters and with buyers. I don’t paint them often, because I’m not a night person, but several of my friends do, and do it well.
Hiawatha, 1870, Thomas Eakins
Today’s post is absurdly larded with illustrations, but I wanted to show you the many ways in which people painted nocturnes before we had headlamps.

Personal performance art, revisited

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875, Thomas Eakins. Who knew Eakins was such a visionary?
Yesterday, I had a minor medical procedure done, which—as is the nature of these things—will be followed by a slightly-less-minor medical procedure. While discussing scheduling, the surgeon mentioned that he could do it either at an outpatient surgical center or our local hospital.
“How about an art gallery?” I inquired. “It would be perfect. This has all the great narrative themes: love, death, gore, fear, sex, nudity, pathos.”
The Agnew Clinic, 1889, Thomas Eakins
He studied the papers in his hands. “Unfortunately, your insurance doesn’t cover you for performance art,” he answered. “However, after January 1, 2014, under the Affordable Care Act…”

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!