Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Queen's Skirt Explodes, Part III, and Wendy Steiner and the Model

On May 5th and again on May 21, I talked about the ways that silks and satins and furs and jewels outshine the faces of Queens (and other elevated subjects, from Holbein to John Singer Sargent)... I had argued that one reason that we remember both a dress and an upholstered chair, but not always the expression of the supposed subject, from an Ingres painting, might be that the painter is displaying his talent: a well-painted pearl? ... another line on the resume.  It could also be that the subjects themselves, from a higher class, unused to sitting so long, were not terribly forthcoming, and the painter became lost in all the decorative touches (every gorgeous thing the sitter owned, very likely) which actually spoke to him.

The Queen, in her sittings in the atelier, bored, would probably be noticing the painter's model (there was always a favorite); the Queen would, in her stiff pose, with her elaborate dress, be trying (consciously or not) to outshine the model, to keep the painter's attention on her royal personage alone.  But the painter would be looking about, testing the light, seeing the familiar face, waiting, in the corner, and the model beckoned. I have always pictured this as a likely scenario, thinking that the model would be the dose of "real" life, something closer to the painter's own experience, that he would rather be attending to.

But I have been reading Wendy Steiner's book,  The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), and she discusses a short story by Henry James, "The Real Thing." A couple, the Monarchs (hmmm... Queen and King?) press the artist-narrator to engage them as models, as his wife, for example, is so lovely, and Steiner says "This is just the trouble ... for Mrs. Monarch is already an artistic cliche, and the artist seems unable to make any art based on her that is not equally unoriginal" (page 38).  And yet, when the artist considers his model, he sees that she is "'so little in herself'" and yet she encourages his leap to "'alchemy in art'" (38).  So I think I need to refine what I have been thinking, thanks to Steiner's interpetation of the story.

It isn't exactly that the model represents the "real," or is somehow more real;  it is that she, in what Steiner calls her "plasticity," can allow an artist to control the way she is represented, in a way that he cannot control the Queen's image.... He can create anything from his model. The Queen remains, stubbornly, herself. So, this is my new task for my next painting/drawing: a new Queen's skirt.

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