Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Dictionary of Artists' Models

In 1989, this Guerrilla Girls poster ran on the sides of New York City buses bringing public scrutiny to the "art world’s" discriminatory practices. Screaming from the shadows of the Julian Schnabels, Robert Longos and other men of the 80s art scene, the Guerrilla Girls forwarded their agenda by issuing report cards that graded museums and galleries based on their inclusion of female and minority artists. The Guerrilla Girls’ work was a powerful criticism of the institutionalized acceptance of women as models and art subjects, above being acknowledged as artists in their own right.

A recent viewing of this poster lead me to wonder, if the work of female artists before the 1980s were non-existent or rarely displayed in the museums, do we at least have documentation of those women who stare out at us from canvas and stone?

To this end, the library owns a first-of-its-kind reference work, The Dictionary of Artists’ Models (published in 2001, and yes, it is hard to believe that such a reference work was not created earlier), a book that the editor states was “born out of a frustration with the paucity of the available research on individuals, male and female who have lent their faces and figures to so many works in Western art.” The volume includes biographical information on a wide range of artists’ models represented in Western art, from professional to non-professional, male and female, represented in various media, intentionally excluding only sitters who posed for portraits of physical likeness and personal aggrandizement. The editor acknowledges the work cannot be comprehensive, but sees its “real value … in its role as a springboard for further research into the work of artist’ models, and their significant and too long neglected contribution to art and art history.”

Models are listed alphabetically by most commonly known name (cross-referenced under alternatives, married names and pseudonyms). Each entry contains a biographical paragraph, a list of artworks most associated with the model, a brief bibliography, and an interpretive essay. According to the editor, ‘the primary aim of the essays is to present an overview of each model’s career, to discuss their contribution to particular works of art, and to illuminate the socio-historical circumstances of their lives and the modeling experience.’ The ‘Index of Artists and Works’ in the back of the volume serves as the necessary bridge to the models’ entries.

While The Dictionary does not have a feminist agenda, nor does it focus solely on female models, it does include the ‘model as artist in her own right’ connection as a common element among many entries (other common scenarios are model as family member or spouse; model as professional; and model as prostitute or mistress). Countless times throughout, one reads statements such as that a model had ‘studied art at,’ ‘became interested in drawing when,’ or ‘was raised in a family of artists.’’ For such individuals, and especially for women, modeling might be their only opportunity to gain formal artistic training through watching the artist at work. In line with the Guerrilla Girls premise, this book also documents several female artists, such as Elizabeth Siddal (pictured below), who were well known as artists within their lifetime, but due to lack of museum ownership and promotion over time became known primarily as models.

In addition to documenting the lives and contributions of models, The Dictionary also offers several short essays on artistic modeling, including one on its the rise as a profession, its representation within literature, the changing popularity of ethnic models, as well as one essay on models as artists.

Beata Beatrix (ca. 1864-1870) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, image source: Tate Collection

Dictionary of Artists' Models, edited by Jill Berk Jiminez; associate editor, Joanna Banham (Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001).

The library also owns the following related works, suggested (by The Dictionary) as general reading on the subject:

Artists & Models: An Exhibition of Photographs, Letters, and other Documents from the Collections of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (The Archives, 1975).

Painted Ladies; Models of the Great Artists by Muriel Segal (Stein and Day, 1972)

Kiki's Paris : Artists and Lovers 1900-1930 by Billy Kl├╝ver and Julie Martin (Abrams, 1989).

The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh (St. Martin's Press, 1985).

Imagination's Chamber: Artists and their Studios
by Michael Peppiatt and Alice Bellony-Rewald (Little Brown, 1982).

The Artist and the Studio in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries by Ronnie L. Zakon (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978).

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