Sit like an Apple

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin by Ruth Butler
    Yale, 354 pp, £18.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12624 2

Claude Monet’s first breakthrough was not the ‘impression’ of a sunrise that lent its name to a movement but a full-length figure in contemporary dress that he submitted to the Salon of 1866 under the title Camille. Posed against a red curtain on a canvas more than seven feet high, a woman in a green and black striped gown and a black jacket trimmed with fur stands with her back angled towards the viewer, her face partly visible as she turns her head over her shoulder and raises one gloved hand in a gesture both elegant and ambiguous. Though one critic complained that the body beneath the dress was poorly modelled and another implied she was little better than a courtesan, Monet’s woman was certainly an attention-getter. A poem in L’Artiste addressed her as the queen of Paris; a friendly caricature of her made the cover of another journal; and Zola, writing under a pseudonym, hailed the 25-year-old artist, whom he had yet to meet, as ‘a man in a crowd of eunuchs’. The liberal critic Théophile Thoré (then publishing as William Bürger) contributed to the buzz by reporting that the entire canvas had taken only four days. That wasn’t true; but, like another of his claims for the picture, it stuck. ‘Henceforth,’ he declared, ‘Camille is immortal and will be called The Woman in the Green Dress.’

It is not clear whether Thoré thought the painting’s original title a fiction, like Manet’s sensational ‘Olympia’ the year before, or was aware that the artist had recently acquired a young mistress called Camille Doncieux, whose face and form had served for the woman in green. But by simultaneously proclaiming her immortal and obliterating her identity, the critic effectively summed up her fate. Camille might pass for a portrait, but The Woman in the Green Dress was a genre painting; Camille entered history only by disappearing from memory. Despite Monet’s initial decision to name the picture after his mistress, in later years even he adopted the generic title. When the Bremen Kunsthalle acquired the painting in 1906, what they bought was The Woman in the Green Dress. The woman in the picture may still have resembled Camille, but she had become, in Monet’s words, ‘merely a Parisian figure of that time’.

Such vanishing acts are hardly unusual in the history of painting. ‘I had not the least desire my model should be discoverable in my picture,’ Henry James’s nameless artist says in ‘The Real Thing’ (1892), as he cavalierly dispatches her to the same sort of afterlife Thoré imagined for Camille: ‘If she was lost it was only as the dead who go to heaven are lost – in the gain of an angel the more.’ But James’s tale draws a sharp line between successful representation and the real thing; and it is very much to the point of his ironic fable that the model in question ‘could represent everything’. She may be ‘only a freckled cockney’, but the painter who hires her has no intention of depicting Miss Churm herself. Disappearing into the image, after all, is what models are for. Miss Churm is a professional.

The relation between Camille Doncieux and her representation on canvas was more ambiguous, however. Monet did not pay her to sit for him: like the other two women who are the subject of Ruth Butler’s new book – Hortense Fiquet (Paul Cézanne) and Rose Beuret (Auguste Rodin) – Doncieux was first the artist’s mistress and later his wife. Hiring a model cost a minimum of one franc an hour; painting the woman who already shared your bed was clearly the cheaper alternative. Though both Monet and Cézanne began their careers with support from their families in the provinces, neither they nor Rodin (whose father was a Parisian clerical worker) had money to spare. But precarious finances are not the only explanation for the phenomenon of the ‘model-wife’. Having broken with the conventions of academic history painting, Butler suggests, the Impressionists and their followers no longer needed to rely on professionals who had been trained to adopt traditional poses. Artists looked to the women of their households because of a newfound interest in everyday life.

Like many histories of modern painting centred on 19th-century France, this argument rather short-changes the work of the Dutch two centuries earlier. Jan Steen frequently included his wife and family in his genre scenes; Gerard ter Borch drew on his half-sister, Gesina; Rembrandt had Saskia and Hendrickje; and at least one prominent Vermeer scholar, John Michael Montias, has speculated that several of the unknown women in Vermeer’s paintings are the artist’s wife or daughter. Perhaps the order of things was a bit more bourgeois in 17th-century Holland: though biographical data for the Dutch are comparatively scarce, they may have been more inclined than their counterparts in 19th-century Paris to marry women before painting them. (Rodin didn’t marry Rose Beuret until she was on her deathbed.) But if neither the model-wife nor the turn to the everyday is as new as Butler implies, her book nonetheless makes an appealing attempt to rescue her subjects from the anonymity of being known as ‘The Woman in the Green Dress’.

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