Earlier this week, we found ourselves fascinated, and slightly unnerved, by Flóra Borsi’s photo manipulations, which bring abstract figures from paintings to life. They apply a surreal and cartoonish twist to the traditional notion of the model as subject, and mischievously toy with our separation of real and aesthetic dimensions. Of course, the two are intimately related, and although they may lack the jaw-dropping oddity of Borsi’s modernist muses, the real-life models of the fine art world have their own fascinating stories to tell. Fortunately, the advent of photography offered artists the opportunity to capture their sitters for reference. Not only has this development created a series of compelling historical images, but also a wealth of intriguing companion-pieces to landmark works. View famous artworks and the models that inspired them, side by side, in our gallery.
Grant Wood, American Gothic
Grant Wood’s sister Nan and the family’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, donned a colonial apron and overalls to pose for the painter’s American Gothic. Rather than these formidable figures, however, it was actually a Carpenter Gothic-style house in Iowa that inspired Wood to create the 1930 painting. He decided to add people to the picture that he imagined would live inside the dwelling — in this case, a farmer and his spinster daughter.
Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With
Norman Rockwell’s painting The Problem We All Live With commemorates the historic walk taken by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend an all-white school. Rockwell’s model, Lynda Gunn, was the granddaughter of a family friend. She posed for the artwork over five days, eventually being joined by a Stockbridge, Massachusetts chief of police and three U.S. Marshals from Boston. “Being a Norman Rockwell model is one thing, but to represent Ruby Bridges… that, in itself, is a very big honor,” Gunn later said of her experience.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril
Dancer Jane Avril, a star of the Moulin Rouge, became Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s greatest muse. Frequently appearing on his dazzling posters, the can-can performer also provided the imago for the ubiquitous red-haired woman celebrated in his paintings. Avril was an unconventional beauty, often appearing quite nervous or melancholic. Lautrec was criticized for portraying his sitters in a cruel fashion, but perhaps it’s fairer to suggest that he rendered his most famous model’s idiosyncrasies with candor and sincerity. She suffered from the movement disorder Sydenham’s chorea (known as Saint Vitus Dance), spending time in Salpêtrière Hospital. As a result, however, her contorted physical style made her a dynamic model and celebrated attraction. Lautrec helped elevate her to the status of cabaret icon in his 1893 poster for her Jardin de Paris performance.
Paul Cézanne, The Bather
Painting from a photograph instead of a live model was an unorthodox technique for an artist in the mid to late 1800s. But Cézanne did just that for his painting The Bather, which granted him the time to explore new painting styles that focused on capturing a psychological mood. He often asked family, local farmers, children, and his art dealer to model for him, so it’s safe to assume that this gentleman was someone whom Cézanne knew in his everyday life.
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother
After settling into his yellow house in Arles, Vincent van Gogh wanted to create a series of family portraits. To commemorate his mother, Anna Carbentus van Gogh (also an artist), he selected a black-and-white photograph of her to draw from, and set about painting the 1888 tribute against a vivid green background. “I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory.”
Edgar Degas’ ballet dancers
The revolutionary painter became a photographer late in his career, often using his snapshots as references for his lauded brushwork — including the ballet dancer artworks he is best known for. He shared the rare images with a small circle of intimates and fellow artists, and only a few dozen survive to this day.
Paul Gauguin, Two Women/Mother and Daughter
Paul Gauguin escaped conventional European society and decamped for French Polynesia in 1891. There, he met Henri Lemasson whose photographs of local islanders became the inspiration for several of his paintings, including Mother and Daughter (1901/1902).
Picasso’s Sylvette series
Lydia Sylvette David (now Lydia Corbett) is an artist, but she is perhaps best known as one of Picasso’s muses. She met the Spanish painter in 1953 when they both lived in Vallauris, and sat for over 40 paintings, drawings, and other studies. The girl with the blond ponytail was also depicted with Picasso in an issue of Paris Match, and her striking style was later adopted by French film star Brigitte Bardot.
Egon and Gerti Schiele
The Austrian painter shared an uncomfortably close relationship with his younger sister Gertrude (nicknamed Gerti). She appeared in several of his paintings and drawings — nude and clothed.
Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole
Thomas Eakins’ masterpiece depicting the male nude celebrates the figures of friends and students (and the painter himself), which caused a stir in fine art circles. The Swimming Hole was based a series of photos Eakins snapped at Dove Lake near Philadelphia. The above 1883 black and white shows the subjects lounging on the rocks, while their poses in the painting allude to classical sculpture.
Balthus and Frédérique Tison
This 1956 photograph was taken after Balthus painted what many consider to be his greatest masterpiece, The Room. The model in the snapshot is his niece, Frédérique Tison, who appeared in many of the controversial modernist’s other artworks. The artist lived with Tison (draw your own conclusions about their relationship) at the château de Chassy, when he was finishing the large-scale work, which echoes Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare.
Lucian Freud and Leigh Bowery
Australian performance artist and London/New York club icon Leigh Bowery became a late-career muse for painter of flesh Lucian Freud after the artist saw Bowery at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1988. “I found him perfectly beautiful,” Freud said.