Monday, October 24, 2011

Model Behavior

Over a thousand artist's models are currently at work in New York city.  Demand is so high that hourly rates for those with experience have risen to 50-75 cents an hour, with the most accomplished pulling in up to $25 a week. Modeling in the nude, which was the common practice a decade earlier has declined and many artists now maintain their own wardrobes. It's the year 1894.

The great C.D. Gibson has himself amassed a collection of 200 dresses.  Recently he was the victim of a sting, having hired a woman "posing" as a model only to learn she was planted by a newspaper writer working on an exposé about the corrupting relationship between artists and their models. A paragon of Victorian virtue, Gibson was not in the least tempted.  Moreover, he was soon in on the scam as the model could barely hold a pose, the rule being 40 minutes of work followed by a 20 minute break.  Like other famous illustrators Gibson had no end of woman begging to pose for him, but as he glibly noted, "models are not as plentiful as cranberries."  Harrison Fisher lamented: "So many pretty and attractive girls come to my studio to ask for posing that I hardly know what to do."   Gibson had a lot of other curious things to say about models. Here's another as quoted in a New York times feature about modeling published at the dawn of the previous century:  "The men who harness women up with dogs will not advance much in their art; the men who place them where they rightfully below will really progress.  It's all in the conception."  Heavy stuff.

Indeed it was impossible to be a commercial illustrator and be unaware of how the artist-model relationship served as a cultural touchstone for the age-old struggle between the sexes, that battle being in the midst of a disorienting reorientation.  The model also served, regrettably as a proxy for expressing cultural prejudice and even racial jingoism.  To wit:  “The best class of models in the world are the American girls.  The models abroad are cheaper, but they cannot be compared with our girls here, who are so bright and interesting.  Above all they are clean, which is almost an unheard-of quality among models on the other side.”  But artists weren't always so keen on the U.S. model: “What a nice class of girls pose nowadays,” gushed, Edwin H. Blashfield.  “Why when I was a young man the best models we could find were newsgirls, scrub girls, and well--, just the most commonplace, ignorant women.” 

Any commercial illustrator who specialized in pretty girls couldn't help but do their own take on the model-artist relationship. The example above by our man Bolles has to rank among the best of any commercial artist, it's fraught with tension both erotic and domestic. It's also a rare surviving example of a detailed comp (recently sold at  Heritage auctions) for a magazine cover from 1925 during his high deco period, it really shows to good effect Bolles' chops with watercolor.  Comparing the sketch with the actual cover provides some interesting insights into Bolles method, and very likely the publisher's reticence over such a blatant display of skin.  The most obvious alteration is the addition of covering on the model, very likely a concession to the art editor, but then Bolles subtly keeps the story line intact with the addition of the nude canvasTo our right is a Pep Stories cover from five years later.  Until posting these images together it never occurred to me they had anything in common beyond the same theme. But not only does the girl on the Pep cover look to be the spitting image of the Snappy model, Bolles also reused the painting (albeit with the addition of a bit of clothing) as well as the pallette.  This must have been a private amusement for Bolles as I sincerely doubt that anybody made the connection between these two covers, until now.

I'll be continuing with the theme of artist's model in future posts.


darwination said...

An excellent post, as ever, Jack. I enjoy seeing the thoughts from artists on their models, an interesting relationship, for certain. As the quotes indicate, it's a professional, workaday situation for the artist and model but borderline scandalous in the public imagination. I'm reminded by the excellent Bolles' cover of a golden age comic cover from Jack Kirby depicting a similar scene:

There's at least one other comics cover of that era with the same situation, but I couldn't track it down.

As for the speculation about the editor asking Bolles to tone down the nudity, you might be right. I'd guess there was always a push or pull around that as the editor either wanted a little more hot-cha from the cover artist or a little less. I do like the final product more, but the sketch rendition certainly adds to the drama of the girlfriend at the door. You can only imagine that this might have happened a time or two if Bolles' wife ever came into the city.

And maybe to put the nudity censorship into context, it was the very next issue of Snappy Stories that was to be banned in Massachusetts! Perhaps it was the Adam and Eve connotation that caused the stir, as this cover doesn't seem out of line with the others of the period (DeAlton Valentine is the artist, scan is from Doug Ellis' landmark Uncovered: The Hidden Art of the Girlie Pulps):

As a side note, I've always wanted to see the Frank Armer pulp Artists and Models Stories, scarce and highly sought-out exactly because of this intriguing relationship...

Jack R said...

Thanks for your insightful comments and great links, Beau. Obviously there's more material here to delve into.