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London Models

PROFESSIONAL models are a purely modern invention. To the Greeks,
for instance, they were quite unknown. Mr. Mahaffy, it is true,
tells us that Pericles used to present peacocks to the great ladies
of Athenian society in order to induce them to sit to his friend
Phidias, and we know that Polygnotus introduced into his picture of
the Trojan women the face of Elpinice, the celebrated sister of the
great Conservative leader of the day, but these GRANDES DAMES
clearly do not come under our category. As for the old masters,
they undoubtedly made constant studies from their pupils and
apprentices, and even their religious pictures are full of the
portraits of their friends and relations, but they do not seem to
have had the inestimable advantage of the existence of a class of
people whose sole profession is to pose. In fact the model, in our
sense of the word, is the direct creation of Academic Schools.

Every country now has its own models, except America. In New York,
and even in Boston, a good model is so great a rarity that most of
the artists are reduced to painting Niagara and millionaires. In
Europe, however, it is different. Here we have plenty of models,
and of every nationality. The Italian models are the best. The
natural grace of their attitudes, as well as the wonderful
picturesqueness of their colouring, makes them facile - often too
facile - subjects for the painter's brush. The French models,
though not so beautiful as the Italian, possess a quickness of
intellectual sympathy, a capacity, in fact, of understanding the
artist, which is quite remarkable. They have also a great command
over the varieties of facial expression, are peculiarly dramatic,
and can chatter the ARGOT of the ATELIER as cleverly as the critic
of the GIL BLAS. The English models form a class entirely by
themselves. They are not so picturesque as the Italian, nor so
clever as the French, and they have absolutely no tradition, so to
speak, of their order. Now and then some old veteran knocks at the
studio door, and proposes to sit as Ajax defying the lightning, or
as King Lear upon the blasted heath. One of them some time ago
called on a popular painter who, happening at the moment to require
his services, engaged him, and told him to begin by kneeling down
in the attitude of prayer. 'Shall I be Biblical or Shakespearean,
sir?' asked the veteran. 'Well - Shakespearean,' answered the
artist, wondering by what subtle nuance of expression the model
would convey the difference. 'All right, sir,' said the professor
of posing, and he solemnly knelt down and began to wink with his
left eye! This class, however, is dying out. As a rule the model,
nowadays, is a pretty girl, from about twelve to twenty-five years
of age, who knows nothing about art, cares less, and is merely
anxious to earn seven or eight shillings a day without much
trouble. English models rarely look at a picture, and never
venture on any aesthetic theories. In fact, they realise very
completely Mr. Whistler's idea of the function of an art critic,
for they pass no criticisms at all. They accept all schools of art
with the grand catholicity of the auctioneer, and sit to a
fantastic young impressionist as readily as to a learned and
laborious academician. They are neither for the Whistlerites nor
against them; the quarrel between the school of facts and the
school of effects touches them not; idealistic and naturalistic are
words that convey no meaning to their ears; they merely desire that
the studio shall be warm, and the lunch hot, for all charming
artists give their models lunch.

As to what they are asked to do they are equally indifferent. On
Monday they will don the rags of a beggar-girl for Mr. Pumper,
whose pathetic pictures of modern life draw such tears from the
public, and on Tuesday they will pose in a peplum for Mr. Phoebus,
who thinks that all really artistic subjects are necessarily B.C.
They career gaily through all centuries and through all costumes,
and, like actors, are interesting only when they are not
themselves. They are extremely good-natured, and very
accommodating. 'What do you sit for?' said a young artist to a
model who had sent him in her card (all models, by the way, have
cards and a small black bag). 'Oh, for anything you like, sir,'
said the girl, 'landscape if necessary!'

Intellectually, it must be acknowledged, they are Philistines, but
physically they are perfect - at least some are. Though none of
them can talk Greek, many can look Greek, which to a nineteenth-
century painter is naturally of great importance. If they are
allowed, they chatter a great deal, but they never say anything.
Their observations are the only BANALITES heard in Bohemia.
However, though they cannot appreciate the artist as artist, they
are quite ready to appreciate the artist as a man. They are very
sensitive to kindness, respect and generosity. A beautiful model
who had sat for two years to one of our most distinguished English
painters, got engaged to a street vendor of penny ices.

On her marriage the painter sent her a pretty wedding present, and
received in return a nice letter of thanks with the following
remarkable postscript: 'Never eat the green ices!'

When they are tired a wise artist gives them a rest. Then they sit
in a chair and read penny dreadfuls, till they are roused from the
tragedy of literature to take their place again in the tragedy of
art. A few of them smoke cigarettes. This, however, is regarded
by the other models as showing a want of seriousness, and is not
generally approved of. They are engaged by the day and by the
half-day. The tariff is a shilling an hour, to which great artists
usually add an omnibus fare. The two best things about them are
their extraordinary prettiness, and their extreme respectability.
As a class they are very well behaved, particularly those who sit
for the figure, a fact which is curious or natural according to the
view one takes of human nature. They usually marry well, and
sometimes they marry the artist. For an artist to marry his model
is as fatal as for a GOURMET to marry his cook: the one gets no
sittings, and the other gets no dinners.

On the whole the English female models are very naive, very
natural, and very good-humoured. The virtues which the artist
values most in them are prettiness and punctuality. Every sensible
model consequently keeps a diary of her engagements, and dresses
neatly. The bad season is, of course, the summer, when the artists
are out of town. However, of late years some artists have engaged
their models to follow them, and the wife of one of our most
charming painters has often had three or four models under her
charge in the country, so that the work of her husband and his
friends should not be interrupted. In France the models migrate EN
MASSE to the little seaport villages or forest hamlets where the
painters congregate. The English models, however, wait patiently
in London, as a rule, till the artists come back. Nearly all of
them live with their parents, and help to support the house. They
have every qualification for being immortalised in art except that
of beautiful hands. The hands of the English model are nearly
always coarse and red.

As for the male models, there is the veteran whom we have mentioned
above. He has all the traditions of the grand style, and is
rapidly disappearing with the school he represents. An old man who
talks about Fuseli is, of course, unendurable, and, besides,
patriarchs have ceased to be fashionable subjects. Then there is
the true Academy model. He is usually a man of thirty, rarely
good-looking, but a perfect miracle of muscles. In fact he is the
apotheosis of anatomy, and is so conscious of his own splendour
that he tells you of his tibia and his thorax, as if no one else
had anything of the kind. Then come the Oriental models. The
supply of these is limited, but there are always about a dozen in
London. They are very much sought after as they can remain
immobile for hours, and generally possess lovely costumes.
However, they have a very poor opinion of English art, which they
regard as something between a vulgar personality and a commonplace
photograph. Next we have the Italian youth who has come over
specially to be a model, or takes to it when his organ is out of
repair. He is often quite charming with his large melancholy eyes,
his crisp hair, and his slim brown figure. It is true he eats
garlic, but then he can stand like a faun and couch like a leopard,
so he is forgiven. He is always full of pretty compliments, and
has been known to have kind words of encouragement for even our
greatest artists. As for the English lad of the same age, he never
sits at all. Apparently he does not regard the career of a model
as a serious profession. In any case he is rarely, if ever, to be
got hold of. English boys, too, are difficult to find. Sometimes
an ex-model who has a son will curl his hair, and wash his face,
and bring him the round of the studios, all soap and shininess.
The young school don't like him, but the older school do, and when
he appears on the walls of the Royal Academy he is called THE
INFANT SAMUEL. Occasionally also an artist catches a couple of
GAMINS in the gutter and asks them to come to his studio. The
first time they always appear, but after that they don't keep their
appointments. They dislike sitting still, and have a strong and
perhaps natural objection to looking pathetic. Besides, they are
always under the impression that the artist is laughing at them.
It is a sad fact, but there is no doubt that the poor are
completely unconscious of their own picturesqueness. Those of them
who can be induced to sit do so with the idea that the artist is
merely a benevolent philanthropist who has chosen an eccentric
method of distributing alms to the undeserving. Perhaps the School
Board will teach the London GAMIN his own artistic value, and then
they will be better models than they are now. One remarkable
privilege belongs to the Academy model, that of extorting a
sovereign from any newly elected Associate or R.A. They wait at
Burlington House till the announcement is made, and then race to
the hapless artist's house. The one who arrives first receives the
money. They have of late been much troubled at the long distances
they have had to run, and they look with disfavour on the election
of artists who live at Hampstead or at Bedford Park, for it is
considered a point of honour not to employ the underground railway,
omnibuses, or any artificial means of locomotion. The race is to
the swift.

Besides the professional posers of the studio there are posers of
the Row, the posers at afternoon teas, the posers in politics and
the circus posers. All four classes are delightful, but only the
last class is ever really decorative. Acrobats and gymnasts can
give the young painter infinite suggestions, for they bring into
their art an element of swiftness of motion and of constant change
that the studio model necessarily lacks. What is interesting in
these 'slaves of the ring' is that with them Beauty is an
unconscious result not a conscious aim, the result in fact of the
mathematical calculation of curves and distances, of absolute
precision of eye, of the scientific knowledge of the equilibrium of
forces, and of perfect physical training. A good acrobat is always
graceful, though grace is never his object; he is graceful because
he does what he has to do in the best way in which it can be done -
graceful because he is natural. If an ancient Greek were to come
to life now, which considering the probable severity of his
criticisms would be rather trying to our conceit, he would be found
far oftener at the circus than at the theatre. A good circus is an
oasis of Hellenism in a world that reads too much to be wise, and
thinks too much to be beautiful. If it were not for the running-
ground at Eton, the towing-path at Oxford, the Thames swimming-
baths, and the yearly circuses, humanity would forget the plastic
perfection of its own form, and degenerate into a race of short-
sighted professors and spectacled PRECIEUSES. Not that the circus
proprietors are, as a rule, conscious of their high mission. Do
they not bore us with the HAUTE ECOLE, and weary us with
Shakespearean clowns? Still, at least, they give us acrobats, and
the acrobat is an artist. The mere fact that he never speaks to
the audience shows how well he appreciates the great truth that the
aim of art is not to reveal personality but to please. The clown
may be blatant, but the acrobat is always beautiful. He is an
interesting combination of the spirit of Greek sculpture with the
spangles of the modern costumier. He has even had his niche in the
novels of our age, and if MANETTE SALOMON be the unmasking of the
model, LES FRERES ZEMGANNO is the apotheosis of the acrobat.

As regards the influence of the ordinary model on our English
school of painting, it cannot be said that it is altogether good.
It is, of course, an advantage for the young artist sitting in his
studio to be able to isolate 'a little corner of life,' as the
French say, from disturbing surroundings, and to study it under
certain effects of light and shade. But this very isolation leads
often to mere mannerism in the painter, and robs him of that broad
acceptance of the general facts of life which is the very essence
of art. Model-painting, in a word, while it may be the condition
of art, is not by any means its aim.

It is simply practice, not perfection. Its use trains the eye and
the hand of the painter, its abuse produces in his work an effect
of mere posing and prettiness. It is the secret of much of the
artificiality of modern art, this constant posing of pretty people,
and when art becomes artificial it becomes monotonous. Outside the
little world of the studio, with its draperies and its BRIC-E-BRAC,
lies the world of life with its infinite, its Shakespearean
variety. We must, however, distinguish between the two kinds of
models, those who sit for the figure and those who sit for the
costume. The study of the first is always excellent, but the
costume-model is becoming rather wearisome in modern pictures. It
is really of very little use to dress up a London girl in Greek
draperies and to paint her as a goddess. The robe may be the robe
of Athens, but the face is usually the face of Brompton. Now and
then, it is true, one comes across a model whose face is an
exquisite anachronism, and who looks lovely and natural in the
dress of any century but her own. This, however, is rather rare.
As a rule models are absolutely DE NOTRE SIECLE, and should be
painted as such. Unfortunately they are not, and, as a
consequence, we are shown every year a series of scenes from fancy
dress balls which are called historical pictures, but are little
more than mediocre representations of modern people masquerading.
In France they are wiser. The French painter uses the model simply
for study; for the finished picture he goes direct to life.

However, we must not blame the sitters for the shortcomings of the
artists. The English models are a well-behaved and hard-working
class, and if they are more interested in artists than in art, a
large section of the public is in the same condition, and most of
our modern exhibitions seem to justify its choice.

Oscar Wilde