Tuesday, May 1, 2012
The Artist's Model
From the fleshy folds of a Rubens to the elongated lines of a Modigliani, the female face and form have inspired centuries of artists to create the timeless masterpieces that fill the walls of museums and private collections.
By and large, we know little or nothing about the women who posed for these artists or why they did so.
Some did it for money, some for love; still others commissioned their portraits from the popular artists of the day.
While we admire and analyze the deftness of the master’s brushstroke, do we ever wonder about the woman who inspired it?
What was she like? What sort of life did she lead?
And what did she think about as she sat there for hours on end under the scrutiny of the artist’s eye?
I was in my mid-thirties when I met an artist through a mutual friend.
“Have you ever been painted?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Well, you should be” he said. “With those skin tones and your face on the verge of becoming interesting, I’d love to paint you.”
Flattered (skin tones) and curious (an almost interesting face?), I decided to take him up on his offer.
And so I became the artist’s model.
I had no idea what to expect that first day.
What should I wear? “Whatever you like.”
What should I bring? “Music that moves you.”
I arrived in t-shirt and jeans with Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” the final trio from “Der Rosenkavalier” and Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder.”
Almost immediately he began to sketch as I moved around the room, picked up objects arranged on a table and then sat down to examine them more closely. We were learning how to connect with one another and, to my surprise, it all felt very natural.
For the next two years we worked in his studio in the afternoons when the light was at its best. I found that my ballet training enabled me to hold a pose for long stretches of time, and my dancer’s “muscle memory” could recall the position perfectly from day to day without any prompting.
Unlike the fashion model who poses for a photographer, there is no camera lens between the artist and his model. His eye is the lens and his hand creates the image that he alone sees.
That first week, my face would start to form on the canvas when I left at the end of each session only to be completely painted over the following day when I returned, because something was just not right – the shape of the mouth or the color of the eyes…
I quickly learned to disassociate myself from the image of the girl on the canvas. She was me; and she wasn’t.
On sunny days we might work outside, although he was always careful not to expose my skin directly to the sun.
He made no demands, asking only that I not cut my hair, which was very long, and not allow the sun to color my skin.
I complied with both requests.
I was surprised how quickly I became accustomed to the artist’s scrutiny. It soon began to feel warm and comfortable, like the tender look of an old friend.
We rarely spoke while he worked. Often I forgot he was there.
With my body locked in position, my mind was free to move about unfettered. Sometimes I surrounded myself with music letting my mind wander where the notes took me; sometimes I sat wrapped only in the silence of my own thoughts.
The odor of paint, turpentine and gesso had a calming effect on me, and the artist’s studio became a refuge during a tumultuous period in my life.
For the two years that it lasted, ours was a relationship of intense intimacy at a distance. I don’t remember that he ever touched me with anything but his eyes.
I once asked him something I had long been wondering about.
“How do you know when to put down your brush? How do you know when your painting is finished?”
He thought for a moment and then replied…..
“I know when a painting is finished when one more brushstroke will diminish it.”
Sometimes knowing when to put down your brush is as important as knowing when to pick it up.