Self Portrait with Model: The Gender Dynamics of Male Artists and Female Models

One of the most popular genres of artwork is self portraiture. Whether this is because schools love to assign self-portraits as projects, artists have constant access to their own faces, or because artists tend to be somewhat narcissistic, self portraiture has been a frequently recurring subject in the art world since the Early Renaissance. Go to any museum or gallery and chances are that you’ll be surrounded by an innumerable amount of self portraiture. Not to emphasize the narcissist theory too much, but I can currently see three of my self portraits from the desk in my bedroom alone.

When we move away from the typical self portrait (Frontal/Three Quarters/Profile, shoulders up, fairly naturalistic, etc) things start to get really interesting. One of the subgenres I find the most fascinating is the Self Portrait with Model.

Paul Georges, Self Portrait with Model in Studio (1967-68)

Paul Georges, Self Portrait with Model in Studio (1967-68)

Self portraits with models are a very gender specific format. With few exceptions (None of which are very well known as far I can tell) the artist is a man and the model is a woman. The artist is clothed and meets the viewer’s gaze, expressing a sense of power. Out of the numerous examples I have been able to find the artists are all white, male, and generally upwards of thirty years old. The models are young, white, conventionally attractive women who pose in various states of undress. They seldom meet our gaze. The tone I am picking up on is one of possessiveness. Artists gesture towards the models (as seen above), touch their bodies, or simply loom aggressively over the figures. There is a sense of bravado at the power they hold over these nude, young women that I’m sure fellow art students have witnesses amongst their peers (We get it art boys! You painted this from a live model! Naked women will pose for you! Congratulations!)

Were there merely a few paintings of this nature I would accept them as an artist displaying his work environment, his skill, or simply something he enjoys. But the fact that there are so many self portraits with models raises important questions.

First! More Self Portraits with Models:

Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Self-portrait with a Model

Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Self-portrait with a Model

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait with Model (1896)

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait with Model (1896)

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1905)

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1905)

More after the jump!

Ernst Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915)

Ernst Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915)

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923)

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Nude Model (1923)

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Muse (1924)

Otto Dix, Self-Portrait with Muse (1924). Dix’s work actually pokes fun at self portraits with models.

Lovis Corinth, Self Portrait with Model (1903)

Lovis Corinth, Self Portrait with Model (1903)

Perlrott, Csaba Vilmos (1880-1955) Self-portrait with a model

Csaba Vilmos Perlrott, Self-portrait with a Model (1922)

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait with model (1973)

Helmut Newton, Self-portrait with model (1973)

Helmut Newton, Self-Portrait with Wife & Models (1981)

Self-Portrait with Model at Bergamo, Giacomo Manzù (2010)

Self-Portrait with Model at Bergamo, Giacomo Manzù (2010). I saw this piece recently at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden in DC, which prompted me to further research self portraits with models.

Pretty formulaic, really. Although the theme spreads across different artistic styles and mediums the basic gist remains the same; an artist (A man with clothing and a personality) with a model (A woman who acts in the role as beautiful, nude muse).

One of main problems with this format is why there are close to no Self Portraits with Models that feature female artists and male muses. In my search I was able to locate this painting:

Laura Knight, Self Portrait with Nude (1913)

Laura Knight, Self Portrait with Nude (1913)

Some online sources (Which may all stem from Wikipedia, so take this with a grain of salt) claim this to be the first painting by a woman artist depicting herself with a nude model. Note that the model is also a woman. This speaks volumes about the way the art world (during this era at least) privileges the nude female form over the nude male form as aesthetically pleasing. Knight’s painting displays how artwork is generally created for the male gaze and that women are often painted as objects to look at, even in paintings by other women.

Take a look at this image:

Robert G. Harris, A Kiss from Johnny (1952)

Robert G. Harris, A Kiss from Johnny (1952)

This illustration accompanied a magazine story entitled, A Kiss from Johnny. In this scenario the artist is a woman, the model is a man, and yet the power exchange is very different. The model has swept the artist backwards, encroaches upon her space. He can hardly be seen as powerless. Of course, this is not a self portrait, simply a depiction of the artist/model relationship that I felt to be applicable to the situation.

Arguably the most famous of these works is by Kirchner:

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1910)

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1910)

This piece typifies the Self Portrait with Model. Kirchner looms in the foreground, unconfined by the boundaries of the painting. He stands confidently with what could be read as a smirk upon his face. The colorful robe drapes over his body, but is obviously unbuttoned, emphasizing the nudity underneath. In contrast, the model in the background is small. She huddles inward with hunched shoulders and legs turned slightly away from the viewer. Her hand is held in her lap, drawing attention to her genitalia. The model’s expression is hard to read. She is clearly unhappy, but whether she is upset, angry, or fearful is uncertain. There is a tension in the air that could be read as an erotic charge, but with the unhappy model it implies something darker. I’ve heard arguments that Kirchner is implying that this model has been violated, but I could not say for sure. Whatever the sexual relationship between the two may be, there is an obvious power dynamic at play, with Kirchner having control over his model.

The narrative becomes more obvious when one realizes the longstanding history of artist/model relationships. Famous artists like Picasso, Modligiani, Renoir, Degas, Schiele, and so many more have a history of sleeping with their models. Some artists (Like Otto Dix, as seen above) call attention to this relationship in order to satirize it. Other artists (Like Kirchner) call attention to the relationship while reinforcing it.

This subgenre could be understandable were it not for the lack of gender dynamics other than masculine artist/feminine model. As women gain more prominence in the art world and queer artists fight for a larger platform it would seem reasonable to see more women depicting men, women depicting women, men depicting men, or any combination of gender identities rather than the limited one seen here.

Here is a Self Portrait with Model I found refreshing, in that while many factors of the artist/model relationship remain the same, the model is not what society considers conventionally attractive. This entirely transforms the tone and meaning behind the piece, with Hanson referencing the implied sexual relationship behind Self Portraits with Models. (Although the implied lack of sexual attraction specifically because of the woman’s appearance is a whole nother can of worms).

Duane Hanson, Self-Portrait with Model (1979)

Duane Hanson, Self-Portrait with Model (1979)

So share your thoughts in the comments. And if you know of interesting Self Portraits with Models, please share!

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6 thoughts on “Self Portrait with Model: The Gender Dynamics of Male Artists and Female Models

  1. “Self portrait with model”, male artist clothed, female model nude… My first reaction was “Seriously? This is a thing??”

    That’s really just gross, even without the context of ongoing relationships that you mention. A clothed man with a naked woman inscribes really blatant power dynamics. Ick, ick, ick!!

    The one example of the clothed woman artist with the clothed woman model was interestingly different from all the M/F examples because the model has her back to the viewer (unlike all but one of the other examples), and so does the artist, who is also at a respectful distance and in a thoughtful (rather than lascivious or arrogant) pose. But what I especially noticed is that the model is posed next to what looks like a changing screen – it might just be wainscoting, but it looks like a screen. Of course, we and the artist are still on the wrong side of it, but its presence there still manages to evoke an aura of modesty around the model. She looks like she’s in the middle of changing her clothes, you know? an ordinary, non-sexually-charged, every-day activity.

    • At first when I saw Manzu’s Self Portrait with Model at Bergamo I thought, it has to be a coincidence that Kirchner also has a Self Portrait with Model, surely this isn’t some sort of common thing. It’s kind of depressing that this is a recurring subject, and that for the most part the works have not really changed in their depictions of artist/model interactions!

      The painting by Knight does have a different feel. Unlike many of the other images she is entirely clothed and there is a reasonable amount of space between her and the model. It feels more like a respectful viewing by an artist of the nude form than many of the others.

      It’s interesting that you mentioned that we’re on the wrong side of the screen. I didn’t think about it before, but a lot of these pieces have a very voyeuristic quality to them, as though we are looking into a private moment (probably a lot of the settings are dimly lit or found in bedrooms). One of the things contributing to the lack of creepiness in Knight’s piece is probably how brightly lit everything is, it actually feels like an environment an artist would work in.

      • Your point about voyeuristic vs brightly lit is a good one. And your response to Tom, below, made me think about these paintings in terms of, ok, so what does it *mean* to paint a “self portrait with model”? How is it different from a “self portrait”? How is it different from a “self portrait with still life”?

        If I imagine myself as an artist desiring to present a “self portrait with model”, then there’s something about the presence and pose of that model that is significant to the “self” that is being portrayed. Is it too speculative to suppose that these male artists considered that the presence and nudity of the female model was significant or even constitutive of thier identity as “artist”? I imagine the artist at cocktail parties or salons, being admired and envied by his non-artist friends because he gets to spend his days looking at (and probably leering at, and probably getting to have sex with) naked women whenever he wants. That’s one of the reasons artists were scandalous, right?

        And given the well-established “(clothed male) self portrait with (nude female) model” genre, it becomes impossible for me to believe that the work by Knight is not a deliberate response to the existing body of conventional works. You couldn’t possibly be a woman artist composing a “self portrait with model” without making a deliberate comment on the genre, could you?

  2. Tom says:

    Melissa, Sylvia Sleigh’s “Philip Golub Reclining” found at http://www.cavetocanvas.com/post/3925796002/philip-golub-reclining-sylvia-sleigh-1971, could technically be considered a self portrait by a woman artist with a nude male model, although in this case the model dominates the picture.
    Also, the French photographer, Aude Du Pasquier Grall, has recorded her photographic secessions with a nude male model found at http://vimeo.com/9953029. The artist set up the video camera on a fixed tripod and it is my impression that she considers the video to be part of her work of art, perhaps as a performance piece, so this might also be considered a self portrait by a woman artist with a nude male model. I found it interesting that the artist is wearing a dress during the photo shot. I would be interested in any thought you have as to that.
    Then there is Gustave Courbet’s “The Interior of My Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist” found at http://artsyfartsypr.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/courbet_the_painters_studio.jpeg. It is my understanding that Courbet was very ego-centric and this painting fits with that as it shows him as the center of attention of a large group of people and not just the nude female model. I do not see this painting as being sexual. I do understand that none of the above could be really considered to be self portraits, but I do feel they are pertinent to your article.
    While I generally agree with your analyses in this article, I do not feel that nudity necessarily makes a model submissive, even when the nude is pictured with others who are not naked. I feel a good example is Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” one of my favorite pictures. The nude women in the foreground the model Victorine Meurent, is sitting casually, but her gaze toward the viewer is assertive. It seems to me that she is naked because she wants to be naked. I do not see this as sexual, unlike Manet’s “Olympia,” but like “Olympia” Victorine is in control. Because the men are covered up to their necks they appear, to me, to be weak as compared to the nude woman. They need to be protected and hidden by clothes and by wearing clothes they show they are catering to convention. But, Victorine is assertive and independent of social conventions. If she wants to be naked she is naked. This maybe a “male fantasy,” (although I do not see it as sexual) but it could also be a “female fantasy,” again not sexual, but as an expression of freedom. Victorine is comfortable in her body. This is not only shown by her being naked, but also because she is not shown with the idealized “classical” body. Here http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/oct/03/women.manet is an article about Victorine Meurent that I found interesting.
    I feel your writings are informative and thought provoking and I am curious as to your thoughts as to what I wrote.
    Tom,

  3. In this post I’m specifically (with the exception of A Kiss from Johnny) talking about work that artists label primarily as self portraits. I tried to shy away from pieces that include a self portrait and a model as a record of a work environment, such as Courbet’s piece, as well as from pieces that identify a model, such as Sleigh’s. Basically, any work that included an image of the artist for reasons other than creating a self portrait, or pieces that are of a specific person and not just the unnamed “model” have been excluded.

    While in real life I think that nudity should not and is not always construed as an act of submission I think that in these works it should be. Because most of these images reference the frequency of artist/model relationships in which there have historically been a number of messed up power dynamics (employer/employee, old artist/very young model, etc) I read these self portraits as being explicit expressions of power.

    This is something that I also believe has changed with time. Images being created today in which I know that gender roles, while far from being equal in terms of power, have considerably improved for women (for everyone, really) don’t necessarily read as an artist conveying control and power over their model. This is because models today have an ability to speak up for themselves that many models in the past did not. The models we use at my school, for example, are very vocal about what they are comfortable doing, inform us of when they need breaks or are cold, and would have many options for recourse if they were to be sexually harassed. The thirteen year old prostitutes hired by Egon Schiele would not have the same options.

    Of course this is not true in every situation. There are undoubtedly cases in which artists and models have had happy, healthy, relationships (such as Manet and Meurent in the article you linked to. Very interesting by the way, thanks for sharing!). However, I think that most of the Self Portraits with Models are not about the model’s choice to exhibit her body and more about the artist’s ability to see and work with a model’s body.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject!

    • Tom says:

      Melissa, I completely agree with you regarding the works I linked to and I fully understand why you only included pictures that the artists labeled as self portraits. Also, in rereading what I posted I realized I was not too clear and I didn’t mean to suggest that I thought you were saying that nudity necessarily makes a model submissive. I do not feel that you were suggesting that. I am also happy to read that you feel that in regard to the model/artist relationships there have been improvements.
      Tom,

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