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    London Models

    by Oscar Wilde
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    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.
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