When the Grape Bursts: Artists’ Models on Modeling

Edgar Degas, Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, c. 1910, bronze. Degas made at least four variations of this sculpture; this version, made with plasteline and cast posthumously, is most likely the one for which Pauline posed. Courtesy of Tate.

IN 1899, ONE Amélie Lang, eighteen, was abducted by her friend’s brother-in-law. When her guardian (an aunt who resented responsibility for Lang’s care) found her days later in the apartment where the abductor was keeping her outside of Paris, the family forced Lang to marry him, for appearances. After months of routine rapes and beatings, Lang packed a few belongings, including her diary, and escaped to Paris. As the diary tells it, on her first day in town, she meets a sculptor who finds her peering hungrily into the window of a patisserie on the Rue de Rivoli. He buys her lunch and offers her room and board if she will model for him. He makes a bed for her in his studio in Montparnasse, and stocks the place with groceries. She sits on a platform and uncovers her shoulders while the sculptor carves a marble bust of her from life.

Once trained, Lang begins modeling professionally for other artists, supporting herself and the sculptor, who becomes her lover. Their romance deteriorates quickly (she stops sleeping with him after she comes home one day to find him in bed with a thirteen-year-old), but they live together in his studio for years in an uneasy truce. Meanwhile, Lang works for artists affiliated with the École des Beaux-Arts and those in the bohemian and avant-garde circles flourishing in dilapidated buildings across Montmartre and Montparnasse. She changes her name to Fernande Olivier, to evade her abusive husband. She takes lovers and becomes known in café society as la belle Fernande.

She has stumbled into the kind of life she had not known was possible. “When I was a young girl I’d dreamed of knowing artists,” she writes. Her diaries, which she kept from the age of fifteen, thrum with the inner radiance of a child who, treated as a stranger in her own family, spends much of her time alone. She reads voraciously and observes beautifully: playing near a brook iridescent with mother- of-pearl shards, is “like walking on a carpet of moonlight . . . I tried to grade them by color, but a ray of light would make them change hue.” In another teenage passage she writes, “I like ripe fruit, as much for the pleasure of looking at it, of touching it, as of eating it” and “when the sun shines, I feel in love with the sun.”

I see raw, painterly sensibility here, but Olivier also has the imagination of a model: “When I feel like it I live deep down inside myself and find wonderful companions there,” she writes as a child, and later, in Paris, “I work hard, modeling all day,” but “fortunately this work allows me to think about anything . . . I’m sure this is why artists find me such a good model, amenable, graceful, and not stiff . . . to pose well you have to . . . lose yourself in another life completely.” She picks up techniques and ideas of painting across different schools, and by 1904, she picks up the brush. “I seem to have an eye for color,” she notes, but she doesn’t know how to draw “like a painter.” “I’d work harder if I had more time.” For five years, she models constantly, posing for two or three artists a day, collapsing, exhausted each evening.

This glimpse into the inner life of models, and into the demands of their creative labor, is a precious thing in the historical record. We know little of those flesh-and-blood people whose images survive across the centuries, those workers whose bodies made the great works possible.

By models I mean professionals, distinct from patrons who sat for portraits, and, to some extent, distinct from the lovers and friends of artists, though the latter was a fluid category. Most professional models, since the advent of life drawing in the early Renaissance, have been working-class or socially marginal. When we do learn models’ names from artists’ records or biographies, those names can rarely be cross-referenced with other sources, since models often used pseudonyms, either to elude their families or to protect them from ill repute. Models remain a marginal subject in art history, partly because of scant documentation. But some of the earliest first-person accounts come down to us from turn-of-the-century Paris, where the work was uniquely plentiful. And it was indeed work. Olivier’s posthumously published second memoir opens with the observation that “modeling was extremely arduous.” She describes “an overpowering desire to fall sleep” from “having to stay absolutely motionless, for fear of disturbing the line of a movement or a fold—the beautiful heavy fold of a dress, stiff or supple, the fold of a shawl or a handkerchief, the curl of a lock of hair.” Though she respects the academic painters who emphasized these precise details, she writes that their art “had very little to do with the revelation of their subject.”

But Olivier’s life, and the art world itself, were about to change. In 1905, an intense young Spanish painter convinced her to move into his studio in the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, where he had built a literal shrine to her image. Her diaries reveal Picasso’s insane jealousy. He forbids her to go outside without him and locks her in the studio when he leaves. He forbids modeling for anyone else; out of both love and exhaustion, she is happy to oblige. Picasso lets her rest. In the early days of their romance, she sleeps constantly, and he paints and draws her sleeping. He encourages her painting but refuses to teach her. She becomes the first significant woman in his life, keeps house, communicates with dealers, entertains the coterie led by Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. She poses through the Rose Period until her face and form appear in the earliest cubist works.

WHAT IS A model for? Years ago, a friend of mine informed me—when I disclosed that I was life modeling to make ends meet in New York—that the job was invented as a pretext for painters to ogle naked women. If you’ve never made art from life or spent time inside a studio, this is a fair assumption. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This from John Berger’s classic essay in Ways of Seeing (1972) on the female nude, a tradition of images designed to titillate and flatter, as he puts it, the male “spectator-owner.”

Berger’s claim is not untrue: through images from the Venus Pudica to Ingres’s bathers to modern advertising, in which women “respond with calculated charm” to an imagined male voyeur, we have internalized the male gaze. The market demands these images. But from inside the studio, history looks different. For one thing, regardless of the image that results, the model’s body is, for the artist, foremost a form to be interrogated through anatomy, negative space, shadow, light, rhythm, tone. The history of Western art is a dialectic between ideal forms and real bodies. Until somewhat recently, the vast majority of those bodies have belonged to men. The male nude predates the female in Greek art by three hundred years, and it was the first to be revived in the Renaissance, along with classical ideals of anatomy and sacred geometry, all archetypally male. (It’s the Vitruvian Man, not the Vitruvian Woman.) While women did pose privately in artists’ studios and workshops, the state-sponsored academies established across Europe from the sixteenth century hired exclusively male life models. Women were banned from academic modeling until the nineteenth century, at which point a remarkable transition took place: female models came to predominate both inside and outside the academies. The rise of the female nude as signifier of bourgeois taste occurred simultaneously with the rise of bourgeois prudery. The result, as art critic and historian Frances Borzello puts it, was that, “while the painting of the nude was respected, the unclothed lady who modeled for it was not.” A causal explanation of this demographic shift is a subject for another essay.* Long story short, as Paris became the capital of both academic and modern art, a huge and visible population of young, female models emerged there, taking the work because it was, though poorly paid, highly available.

The outside world viewed modeling as barely distinguishable from sex work. For the models themselves, it could be an escape from sexual peril. When a doctor pursuing Olivier asks her if she sleeps with all the painters she works for, she writes in her diary, “This bourgeois way of thinking is disgusting: artists usually respect their models, apart from a few maniacs, and a woman modeling can usually be sure not to be bothered.” The model known as Kiki (née Alice Prin), whose incredible charisma would later make her Man Ray’s most visible collaborator (it’s her back we see in Le Violin d’Ingres) as well as a mascot of Montparnasse, began modeling as a teenager supporting her mother. A young country girl in a city full of sexual traps, she’d left a position in a bakery because the owner kept showing her his penis. She writes in her Memoirs (1929):

I went out to look for work, and I met an old sculptor who, seeing that I was up against it, had me come pose for him. That was something new for me, to strip like that, but what else was there to do! I’ve already posed for him three sittings . . . My mother forced her way into the sculptor’s [studio] and proceeded to throw a scene . . . [screaming] that I wasn’t her daughter any more.

Kiki soon found a new family among the artists who ate on credit at the Café Rotonde. The café’s owner required ladies to wear hats, so she scrounged an unfashionably ornate one from the dumpster. “I had found my true milieu!” she writes. “The painters adopted me. End of sadnesses.”**

What made the profession of modeling in belle époque Paris so scandalous . . . was that it provided a conduit for working-class and “unrespectable” women into the art world.

Whether or not a model formed romantic attachments to her artists, the work was affective as well as physical. In the third-person journalistic account Degas and His Model (1919), published in two installments in the Mercure de France, a professional model called Pauline, posing in 1910 for a version of the sculpture Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot, manages Degas’s notoriously dark moods. She diffuses his antisemitic rants and depressive episodes with assurances and flirtatious jokes: “You’re in astounding shape for seventy-six years,” she says, and when he laments his bladder disorder, “well that’s what you get for your disreputable youth.” Degas here is miserable, ghoulish, and offensive. He once strikes Pauline in frustration. The handful of art historians who have written about this source see it mainly as a character assassination of the artist at the height of his posthumous acclaim. But Pauline seems to feel a genuine, if exasperated, tenderness for the old man who, though his eyesight is failing, continues to work daily on overwrought statuettes that crumble in his hands. In one scene, he attempts a commissioned drawing of Pauline, and, as he picks up each pastel, relies on her to describe its color for him. While he works, she smiles at the surreal soliloquies into which he slips unconsciously: “with a serious doctrinal air . . . [h]e spoke of a green and tender princess, wracked with love and fleas, who walked through the ruins of Art; then of a tiger wearing a jockstrap who pissed down the ramparts of Art . . . The litany always wound up with: Ah! The camel of Art!”

Degas and His Model was published under the pseudonym Alice Michel, purportedly based on the model’s testimony, though scholars have assumed it was either written by the model herself or entirely fabricated. Jeff Nagy, who edited a translation published by David Zwirner Books (2017), posits that Alice Michel was actually the Decadent novelist Rachilde (real name: Marguerite Eymery), who edited the Mercure with her husband Alfred Vallette. Active in progressive and proto-feminist circles in Paris, Rachilde was interested in documenting women’s labor. Nagy also contends that Pauline was a real model. To me, what makes the account convincing is the way it foregrounds the banal discomfort of modeling. Degas’s atelier is freezing, nude Pauline hovers near the stove on her breaks, massaging her leg which “had gone numb from holding the excruciating pose” in which she arches her back and tenses every muscle “down to the fingertips,” shaking, losing control as the session goes on. When she puts her clothes back on, they are ice-cold and black with the dust of an unswept studio.

As Nagy writes, “No one would have been more horrified than Edgar Degas at the thought of a model taking up the pen.” One of Pauline’s strategies for cheering him up is to share gossip about the art world she gleans working closely with many artists across different schools. Degas is amused until he remembers his class consciousness: “What times we live in, Pauline, good God! Now there are even models who come around wanting to talk about art.” Pauline thinks privately, though dares not say aloud, that, “it was the artists themselves who often encouraged [their models] to try their hand at painting or sculpture.”

This is important. What made the profession of modeling in belle époque Paris so scandalous—at least as much as that it allowed women to be unclothed in public—was that it provided a conduit for working-class and “unrespectable” women into the art world, where many underwent a kind of vocational training.*** Kiki went on to exhibit her own paintings—urban scenes, female nudes in the remembered Burgundian landscapes of her youth—in 1927 to a packed show at the Gallerie au Sacre du Printemps. But for Kiki, who later supported herself as a nightclub singer, painting was an extension of her ongoing performance of Kiki. Part of her appeal was her winking manipulation of the gaze. The artist Tsuguharu Foujita, who wrote the introduction to her memoir, recalls that the first time she came to pose for him she drew his portrait, took the modeling fee, and immediately sold her picture at the Café du Dôme to an American collector “for an outrageous price.” She would allegedly walk into a restaurant, flash the clientele, and demand payment, then hand over the money to a needy friend. Hemingway wrote in his introduction to the English translation of her memoir (never distributed in America because of obscenity laws), that Kiki was “never a lady” but “she was about as close as people get nowadays to being a Queen.”

Some models went on to identify mainly as painters. Suzanne Valladon (a favorite of Toulouse-Lautrec) and Victorine Meurent (the nude in Manet’s Olympia), for example, achieved considerable success, though they never shed the more scandalous associations of their modeling careers. Gwen John—who posed for money (and love) during art school, as many of the first formally trained women did—modeled for Rodin for several years, during which she produced a series of drawings that show her in the act of drawing herself nude. These works, which take the gaze as their subject, anticipate the feminist art of later decades and provide early examples of what would become a major genre of the twentieth century: the nude self-portrait.

IN MODELING LIFE (2006), a sociological monograph on contemporary life modeling based on interviews with models, author Sarah Phillips writes that many of her respondents “speak of art as a verb, as something that is done, not some thing. In this view, art is ephemeral, a moment of inspiration or creation. The object that results from that moment is a by-product, a representation or reminder of what the moment of art contained.” The painting or drawing or sculpture “is art only to the outside world, the world that deals in material capital.” The market privileges certain objects, perpetuates the myth of solitary genius unmoored from all the supportive labor that makes art happen. But the real work is in the process itself.

What passes between a model and artist(s) in a room together is ineffable. When a sitting or a series of poses goes well, there is an energy, like a happening. I’ve collaborated with one painter for more than two years who has become my friend and drawing teacher. He and I have spoken of the process as something akin to Fluxus or performance art, like its beginning and its end could be anywhere or nowhere. The contemporary artist Henry Taylor uses the analogy of a jam session: “The model might be the bass player, you know, and I’m on guitar.” One of Phillips’s respondents puts it this way: “It’s an experience. Like when you burst the grape in your mouth. Pow! THAT moment.”

For many models, as for their artists, the process precipitates the impulse to record that moment. Sometimes those records exist only as a kind of oral tradition in certain studios. I have heard of other models (besides me) who keep extensive notebooks about modeling. At two studios where I’ve posed, artists have told me about former models who have turned their practices into one-woman shows. I saw a recording of one of these,*✦ written by Andrea Kuchlewska in 2010 in collaboration with the model-actor Harmony Stempel. It’s titled Human Fruit Bowl, after a joke in the oral tradition that a model is, well, a human fruit bowl. Stempel takes a series of twenty-minute poses, alternately nude and draped. Audience members are encouraged to sketch her. The performance is an actual open-model session in which she delivers a monologue which interweaves banal mental chatter, a fictionalized account of her first gig, and a historical rumination on Renée Monchaty, the model-mistress of the Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard.

Monchaty committed suicide around the time that Bonnard married another model. This is basically all we know about Renée Monchaty. Her private thoughts were never recorded, but it seems the loss of the artist-lover’s gaze (and maybe the lost chance at achieving respectability through marriage) could not be born. “It’s like one tragic story after another,” Stempel says, alluding to Modigliani’s model and partner Jeanne Hébuterne, who killed herself the day after Modigliani died—she was twenty-one, also a promising painter, and pregnant with their second child. It’s not always so extreme. Even sensible Pauline is sad when crusty old Degas stops booking her; she continues calling on him, just to chat, until one day he says, “we have nothing left to do together.”

Henri Matisse, The Blue Eyes, 1935, oil on canvas, 15 x 18 in. One of many variations on the pose which inspired Matisse’s collaboration with Delectorskaya. Courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society.

Olivier’s relationship with Picasso deteriorated as cubism made him wealthy and famous. He wanted a bourgeois wife, and it would not be Olivier—for one thing, she was still legally married to the man who’d abducted her as a teenager. When she and Picasso split in 1914, he left her with no money or career. She worked odd jobs, gave French lessons to Alice Toklas and others, showed some of her paintings, but ultimately found her purpose in writing. Her first memoir, Picasso and His Friends (1933) is a major document of the origins of cubism—Max Jacob called it “the best mirror of the cubist Acropolis.” We see African artifacts in the studio, masks stolen from the Louvre by Apollinaire’s assistant, Picasso experimenting with abstraction, throwing nude parties, smoking opium and hash. Picasso, embarrassed by such revelations, sued—ultimately unsuccessfully—to stop the memoir’s publication.

Over the years, Olivier appealed to Picasso several times for financial support, to no avail. She also begged their friend Gertrude Stein to help get her memoir published in America—Stein agreed, then ghosted Olivier for two years, at the end of which she published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which covered much of the same ground.*✦✦ Destitute by the 1950s, and practically bedridden with arthritis (I’d guess from posing constantly for most of her twenties), Olivier again wrote to Picasso, this time mentioning the second and more intimate memoir she’d been working on for decades. He agreed to give her a small pension in exchange for a promise not to publish Souvenirs Intimes, though it was to him she had dedicated this second memoir, writing, “it was only with you that I experienced happiness . . . I owe you more than life could ever have allowed me to hope for.”*✢

WE MIGHT FIND a happier ending in the story of Matisse’s model Lydia Delectorskaya. After fauvism and the postwar “return to order,” Matisse had settled down in suburban Nice with his wife and servants, far removed from bohemia. This suited twenty-two-year-old Delectorskaya, who joined his staff in 1932, first as a studio assistant for his triptych mural, La Danse II, then as a caretaker for Madame Matisse. Delectorskaya had supported herself as a model at age twenty, a divorced and orphaned Russian refugee in Paris who at first spoke little French. She had never expected to model again—“true drudgery for me”—but one day Matisse was struck with inspiration seeing her in a natural pose: “my favorite pose,” she writes, “head down on my arms, which were crossed on the back of a chair.

“These improvisations were repeated more and more” and from 1934, Delectorskaya became Matisse’s primary model and, taking more and more interest in the work, his studio manager. She posed every day, booked other models, prepared canvasses, paid bills, sewed garments she posed in. The hundreds of iterative works Matisse produced in collaboration with her led him towards the increasingly simplified language of his later career, culminating in the cutouts of the 1950s. Matisse was, by his own admission, dependent on his models and made easel paintings exclusively from life. As Delectorskaya writes, “he needed the exaltation with which he responded to the sight and proximity of flowers, brightly colored materials, juicy fruit and the female body which he was going to attempt to sublimate.”

Matisse was forty years older than Delectorskaya; their relationship was never sexual. But in 1939, Matisse’s wife, feeling her role had been usurped, gave her husband an ultimatum: It’s me or Lydia. Matisse fired Delectorskaya, who, devastated, shot herself in the heart. Miraculously, she survived, and Matisse’s wife left him anyway. He and Delectorskaya reunited in 1940, and she remained his companion and manager until he died.

In the 1930s, Matisse had also begun using photography as part of his process, never “in anticipation of an eventual painting,” but so that he could better understand each work’s progression. Delectorskaya collected and carefully annotated some of these photos, compiling them with many more he bequeathed her upon his death in 1954, when she too found purpose in writing. Her two books, With Apparent Ease (1988) and Henri Matisse: Contre vents et marées, (1996) structured around the extensive collection of annotated photos, are among the most important sources on Matisse’s later practice.*✢✢

In fact, Delectorskaya had begun writing about Matisse’s work from their first year together, though he had cautioned her against the pitfalls and misunderstandings of the critics. “He alone knows how to define the substance of his actions,” she writes. Among the photos she includes excerpts from Matisse’s interviews, allowing him to explain them in his own words. On the making of a likeness he says, “I’ve got to be so penetrated, so impregnated by my subject that I could draw it with my eyes closed,” and, “there is a sort of revelation, I’m no longer in control. At such times there is a great split in me: I no longer know what I am doing, I identify with my model.”

ATTENTION IS POWERFUL. To be a body in a room, perceived for hours in the flow of light and silence, invited into an artistic practice: this is profound. An exchange of gifts.

The other day, I was posing in my painter-friend’s studio. He stepped out briefly, and I was looking at some sketches on his desk when my eye landed on a scrap of paper among loose sticks of charcoal, desiccated pomegranates, pothos vines. It was a quote in his handwriting, though I couldn’t make out the attribution: “I thought I could find behind ordinary acts the sacred acts that were their symbol.”

What is a model for? The model’s Apollonian purpose is to serve as a tool in the mastery of form. The model’s Dionysian purpose is to act as a conduit into what the subjects in Phillips’s study sometimes call “human sexuality,” the erotic energy which is not directed toward any individual person but vibrates through all of existence. To put it in Platonic terms, it is the Ideal Form glimpsed through earnest contemplation of the Real. We might call it the muse, a word which I have avoided in this essay because the muse never resides in one person; it is a mystery.

At their best, artists and models are just some people in a room working to open, for a moment, that mystery. Forever approaching the sacred act behind the ordinary, the “great split,” the moment when the grape bursts.


*In his classic study The Nude (1956), Kenneth Clark attributes the shift mostly to the painter Ingres, whose smooth, sexy bathers and odalisques became the standard of academic and bourgeois taste. In The Invention of the Model (2006), Susan Waller argues that, beginning around 1830, a shift in emphasis from ideal to particular bodies led the Académie and ateliers to hire more diverse models, including women.

**From “Kiki vous parle sans pose,” a series of autobiographical vignettes published in Ici Paris Hebdo in 1950, collected in Kiki’s Memoirs (Ecco Press, 1996).

***Lois Oliver makes this argument beautifully in “Bodies of Work: Models as Artists” in The Dictionary of Artists’ Models, Jill Berk Jimenez, ed. This book is the most comprehensive source I’ve found on the history of models.

*✦In the New York Studio School Lecture Series archives, housed at the library of the New York Studio School.

*✦✦As John Richardson writes in the epilogue to Loving Picasso, Stein’s book narrates many of the same events for the English-speaking audience in a not-dissimilar (though more literary) “snapshot” style. Stein’s original title was “Twenty-Five Years with Gertrude Stein”; Olivier’s proposed English title was “Nine Years with Picasso.”

*✢Souvenirs Intimes was published posthumously in 1988. An English translation of Olivier’s private writing was released in 2001 under the title Loving Picasso.

*✢✢All Delectorskaya’s quotes are taken from With Apparent Ease. As far as I can tell, Contre vents et marées was not translated into English. Both books are hard to find, even in academic collections; I accessed the former in the library of the New York Studio School.


Borzello, Frances, The Artist’s Model. Faber and Faber, 2010.

Delectorskaya, Lydia, With Apparent Ease—Henri Matisse: Paintings from 1935-1939, translated by Olga Tourkoff. A. Maeght, 1988.

Jimenez, Jill Berk, ed., Dictionary of Artists’ Models, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

Michel, Alice, Degas and His Model, translated by Jeff Nagy. David Zwirner Books, 2017.

Montparnasse, Kiki de, Kiki’s Memoirs, Billy Klüver and Julie Martin eds. Translated by Samuel Putnam. Ecco Press, 1996.

Olivier, Fernande, Loving Picasso: The Private Journal of Fernande Olivier. Elaine M. Stainton, ed. Translated by Christine Baker and Michael Raeburn. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.

Phillips, Sarah, Modeling Life: Art Models Speak About Nudity, Sexuality, and the Creative Process. SUNY Press, 2006.

Waller, Susan, The Invention of the Model: Artists and Models in Paris, 1830-1870. Ashgate, 2006.

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