I have spent a goodly amount of time of late thinking about what it must have been like to be Alexa Wilding. This is due to researching a book set around her life. For this, I read Treffry Dunn’s account of Rossetti’s studio in the 1860s and Gale Pedrick’s No Peacocks Allowed which mirrors Dunn’s autobiography. The wonderful thing about Alexa is that we don’t know much about her, and I was thinking about the many different ways that an artist and model seem to interact. When we think of Rossetti and his models, it only seems to be a hop, skip and a tumble from sitting for him to his bed, but that isn’t true of all Rossetti’s muses, and certainly not true of all artists and their models.
I must have had the shortest modelling career in history. In some ways, modern technology shortened it even more as all the artist needed to do was take a series of photographs of me, then I didn’t even need to be present after that. As it turned out, he didn’t use me for any works but had the extraordinary good manners to remember me when he saw me again recently for the first time in 15 years. Now, that is classy.
Here we go then, a little trot through different ways that artists and their models are pictured and what it all means…
The king of self-reflexive painting seems to be Frith. There are a few paintings of him painting, but they all seem straight-forward, especially this one. The woman is as much of a prop to him as the suit of armour, which is an interesting addition as it is an inanimate object in the shape of a person, possibly how he sees the model…
The Sleepy Model (1853) William Powell Frith
He doesn’t even need her to be awake to paint her as such, as this painting shows. You wonder why he needs her at all, as sometimes you get the impression that the model is just a place marker for the imagination of the artist. They will fill the space occupied by the model with their own imagination. The model is there for prosaic matters such as perspective. I mean, what else are they good for…?
Oh, well, there is that of course…. Where else can a young gentleman hang out with nudie ladies? As we all know, getting a girls clothes off is the hard part, and these girls take their clothes off for a living! Goodness! There is a thread of ‘Model as Hireable Floozy’ paintings, where the artist obviously enjoys his models charms in a more tangible way than just artistically.
The Artist’s Studio (1880s) Frank Hyde
For goodness sake. You do get the impression that some people regarded the relationship between artist and model as shorthand for lovers, and it is true that a lot of artists had relationships with one of their models, but at the time it was a certain way of meeting an available woman and getting to know her without having to make the commitment to formally court them. There were far less images of ‘Model as Sex Poppet’ than I expected as I guess that may have been a reality, if not a danger, for the working-class professional models. Then again, it wouldn’t necessarily have been the image that artists wanted to cultivate. Just the odd hint of ‘By the way, there are naked chicks at my studio, aren’t I cool?’ seems to be enough…
The Painter and His Model (1874) Jean Bertou
The Artist’s Studio (1840) William Mulready
There seem to be quite a few images of ‘the model as equal’ or ‘the model as co-worker’, which surprised me. While some have the overtone of romance like Bertou or Mulready’s The Artist Studio, some show the model and artist on breaks, just being in each other’s company.
After the Pose Sven Richard Bergh
Idle Moments (1889) Dudley Hardy
How does this inform my thoughts on Rossetti’s relationship with Alexa Wilding? Well, we know from the Kelmscott letters to Dunn that he often referred to her in the same breath as objects he needed to be brought for paintings, so he may have thought of her solely in terms of her beauty as a ‘thing’ he can paint. His attitude to Alexa does seem markedly different to that of Elizabeth, Fanny or Jane, as if all he needs from her is the outside. The money he paid to her regularly seems to be almost rent, to keep her available for his artistic purposes, without any interest in her as a person. She is the human version of that damn pearl pin, adorning his canvas as a thing of beauty. Maybe that is how the model-artist relationship should go, it does seem that it would be a damn sight less complicated and destructive if they were all like that.
As for me, I got to keep some amazing photographs of how huge my hair was when I was 24. They are a comfort to me now I am a raddled old ruin…
|Me, by David Inshaw, c.1997|