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’.

The three stories have much in common, particularly at the start. A young woman, not yet twenty, meets up with a male artist on an unrecorded occasion somewhere in Paris. She agrees to model for him or have sex with him (we don’t know which came first); and within a few years they have an illegitimate son. At some point they set up house together; and sooner or later – in the Rodins’ case, more than half a century later – they marry. For much of their life as a couple, they struggle with poverty. Changes of address are frequent, whether for the sake of art or in flight from creditors. (No one beats Monet, however, when it comes to begging letters: to be his friend was to be perpetually solicited for francs, even when he should have been prospering.) All three artists come and go by themselves a lot, though only Cézanne seems to have been principally motivated by the desire to spend as little time as possible with his wife and child. (He preferred living with his mother and sister in Aix.) In due course the relation is disrupted by another woman, but here the narratives diverge considerably, from the unrequited affair that briefly obsessed the sexually anxious Cézanne even before he married Fiquet, to the womanising in which Rodin indulged after he became a celebrity. Monet, who may or may not have had an affair with his second wife while still married to his first, was living in a ménage à quatre with the other woman and her husband when Doncieux died. He was the only one to marry again. Only Fiquet outlasted the artist who had painted her.

The conventional wisdom in the cafés was that domestic entanglements should be avoided; and with the partial exception of ‘Monet’s bird’, as Butler says Doncieux was known by his friends, these wives have not had a good press. Contemporaries regarded Fiquet and ‘her bourgeois son’ as a dead weight on Cézanne: perhaps taking their cue from him, they called her la Boule, as in ‘ball and chain’. Van Gogh thought there was ‘plenty of male potency’ in Cézanne’s work ‘because it didn’t evaporate on his wedding night’. Puzzling over the artist’s nature some forty years later, Roger Fry wondered how much ‘the tremendous repression that took place’ could be explained by ‘that sour-looking bitch of a Mme’. The misogyny directed at Rodin’s partner was somewhat less virulent; and since she was the offspring of peasants, it took a different form. Late in life the artist told Vita Sackville-West that Beuret had attached herself to him ‘comme une bête’ – less ‘like a crazy person’, as Butler has it, than ‘like a dumb animal’. (Butler earlier quotes Alexandre Dumas on the ‘trainloads of young people’ arriving from the provinces: ‘especially girls from the lowest classes who, being so close to natural savagery, retain their animal appetites for sensual indulgence’.) By the time Rodin was discussing Beuret with Sackville-West, his international success had carried him far from his working-class origins, and even further from those of the provincial peasant who still shared his life. Most accounts of Beuret date from his years of fame, when gossip dismissed her as a ‘little washerwoman without any capacity for communication with him’ (Edmond de Goncourt), and visitors mistook her for his jealous old housekeeper. Though there were some dissenting voices – including that of Rilke, who briefly worked as Rodin’s secretary – even those in charge of preserving the artist’s legacy managed not to see her. Butler reports that the portrait of Beuret that appears as a frontispiece to this book long hung in the Musée Rodin as a picture of the artist’s mother.

The voices of these women, too, have almost vanished from the record. Whether Monet’s second wife destroyed the letters of her predecessor, as many scholars assume, or the artist himself set fire to them, as Butler plausibly speculates, nothing from Doncieux survives. We have just two letters from Fiquet; 11, barely literate, from Beuret. Butler partly compensates for this absence by turning to social history. She invokes the demographic shifts that help explain, for example, why nearly all the principals in her story had roots in the provinces. To contextualise her subjects’ frequent movements around Paris and its suburbs, she offers several brief excursuses on the changing face of the 19th-century city. We hear about the growth of consumerism and the rise of the department store, especially in relation to the up-to-date fashions that figure so prominently in Monet’s images of his wife, and about the national rail system that would have taken the 17-year-old Beuret from her village in the Haute-Marne to the capital. Descriptions of Parisian needleworkers fill in Beuret’s life as a seamstress; and a modern study of impoverished motherhood in the city serves to reconstruct the conditions under which she would have given birth to Rodin’s baby.

Hidden in the Shadow of the Master also draws on the evidence of Zola’s L’Oeuvre (1885-86), a re-creation of a Cézanne-like painter, Claude Lantier, and his model-wife, Christine. As the suffering partner of a man who always puts his art first, Christine is, in Butler’s account, ‘the fictional sister of the women in this book’. Indeed, Zola’s portrait of the model-wife is sympathetic – arguably more so than his portrait of the artist. (The publication of L’Oeuvre put an end to Cézanne’s friendship with the novelist.) In lines Butler doesn’t quote, Zola even suggests that a woman married to the man who paints her is compelled to work harder than her paid equivalent:

Claude soon began to take her for granted and to treat her merely as a model, making more demands upon her than if he had been paying her and without ever thinking that, since she was his wife, he could ask too much of her. He used her for everything and expected her to be ready to undress for him at any moment, for an arm or a leg or for any odd detail he happened to need. She was reduced to being nothing more nor less than a kind of living dummy which he set in position and copied, as he would have copied a jug or a cooking-pot in a still life.

Despite her recourse to Zola’s novel, Butler resists the implications of a passage like this, with its picture of the model-wife as the dehumanised victim of her husband’s art. While the neglected Christine ends by angrily denouncing Lantier’s painting – ‘it’s been choking the life out of me,’ she says, ‘ever since I met you’ – Butler wants to believe that her model-wives were active, even joyful, collaborators in their husbands’ work. She invites us to see them not as objects of the gaze but as subjects who managed to convey that subjectivity in ‘their look’.

Teasing out historical persons from their painted images would be a tricky exercise under any conditions; but it proves all the more challenging here because so many of the pictures at issue show relatively little interest in the model’s face. With some notable exceptions, including the recently identified portrait of Beuret, the artists in this book used their wives more as elements of composition than as characters. This holds true not only for works like Monet’s Women in the Garden (1866), with its four modishly dressed figures – all based, according to Butler, on Doncieux – but also for the multiple images of Fiquet in which Cézanne turned the art of portraiture into something nearly resembling still life. Though Fiquet’s form typically dominates the canvas, her personality remains elusive: her face an enigmatic mask, her eyes two dark hollows. Looking at one of the most famous of these images, Madame Cézanne with a Fan (begun in 1878), Butler finds enough white in one of those eyes to counter the impression that their owner is sightless. But whether the dignity she identifies in this and other such portraits was the gift of the model or of the man who painted her is impossible to say. In any open question, Butler opts for the model: she speaks, for example, of how ‘Hortense Fiquet brought solidity and patience to Paul Cézanne’s art,’ though all we can know for certain is that Fiquet sat repeatedly for her husband in their early years together and that others’ accounts of what this experience was like suggest that more than an ordinary degree of patience was required. ‘You wretch!’ the artist reportedly shouted at his dealer, Ambroise Vollard: ‘You’ve spoiled the pose. Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple?’ In justice to Fiquet, one of Cézanne’s nieces recalled, many years later, that her aunt would patiently read to him for hours on end when he could not sleep. As for ‘solidity’: if to ‘sit like an apple’ is already to possess the weightiness and substance that Cézanne typically gave to that fruit, then perhaps here, too, we should credit the model as much as the painter.

The argument for Doncieux, by contrast, hangs primarily on her clothes. Rather than attribute her eye-catching outfits to Monet, Butler prefers to think of dressing up as woman’s work – especially, she implies, because the dresses in these pictures were often so stylish. (Presumably a man would not have cared whether his models were wearing the latest fashion.) A chain of inference links the origins of Doncieux’s father in Lyon to the textile trade and thence to his daughter’s ‘instinctive taste for feminine elegance’. Or perhaps she acquired her taste by wandering round Printemps, the most recently opened of the Parisian department stores and the nearest to the family home in Batignolles. (‘We can imagine this to have been Camille’s kind of place.’) Looking at Doncieux elegantly posed in the green dress, Butler decides that a ‘quality of display … came naturally to her.’ Never mind that the dress was a studio prop, borrowed from another artist. Whenever possible, Butler chooses to believe that the models suggested their own costumes. So she notes, for example, of Women in the Garden that Doncieux ‘has added a stylish hat’ to an outfit worn in an earlier painting, or remarks that ‘surely it was she who selected the dresses’ for the various domestic scenes that Monet painted at Argenteuil in the 1870s. When Doncieux dons a red kimono and yellow wig for La Japonaise (1876) – the large canvas of a woman in Oriental trappings with which Monet sought to replicate the original success of Camille – Butler encourages us to picture the couple trying out poses together and laughing at their visual wit. They were, she asserts, ‘a good team’.

It’s an attractive scenario, and Butler evidently prefers it to the stolid endurance she associates with Fiquet. But wishful speculation proves no match in the end for a narrative better grounded in history: that of Rose Beuret’s long involvement with Rodin. Though Beuret herself could barely write, Rodin was an obsessive record-keeper, who hoarded everything from his own ardent letters early in their relationship to financial papers, erotic drawings and the outpourings of his later mistresses. By the first decade of the 20th century, according to one of his secretaries, ‘two whole rooms’ of his villa ‘were given up to this passion for the accumulation and preservation of the letters, invoices, vouchers, estimates and receipts of a lifetime.’ The secretaries themselves later contributed reminiscences, as did many of the visitors who descended on Rodin in his years of fame. Butler, who has already written a biography of the sculptor, knows this material well, and she draws on it to good effect in her portrait of Beuret. There is more than a little irony in our knowing most about the model-wife who would have been least able to tell her own story.

As a sculptor rather than a painter, Rodin inhabited a different world from Cézanne and Monet. Alone among those discussed here, he testified to the collaboration of artist and model: ‘They work together as a productive force.’ He certainly seems to have got more out of Beuret than a capacity to sit like an apple. One female allegory for which she served as a model required her to ‘get up on an elevated platform, nude to the waist … her arms outstretched for long periods of time’ – only to break the pose periodically by leaping and yelling as loudly as possible, so that Rodin could capture the ferocity of her gesture in his image. The dynamism of another such figure, originally intended as a bust of ‘La République’, gave rise to the unsubstantiated claim that Rodin had captured Beuret’s expression during one of their frequent quarrels. (Both projects failed to win the commissions for which they were submitted; ‘La République’ subsequently became Bellone, the goddess of war.) But even when she wasn’t supplying expressive energy for his figures, the artisanal character of the sculptor’s studio meant there was much work to do. Rodin’s first surviving letter to Beuret, written while he was engaged on a project in Brussels, makes clear that he counted on her: ‘When you moisten my figure, don’t moisten it too much or the legs will get too soft. I am well pleased that you are taking care of my plasters and my clays.’ Subsequent sets of instructions, more difficult for the uninitiated to decode, testify to the understanding that grew between them. Clay had to be kept damp by carefully rotating wet rags; fragile figures needed to be packed up for shipment; photographers and collectors had to be shown around the studio. So long as Rodin regarded himself primarily as a craftsman rather than a genius, his companion could proudly continue to serve as his ‘garçon d’atelier’.

Success, as it has a way of doing, divided them. In 1880, some 16 years after he met Beuret, Rodin won the commission for the relief that would eventually become The Gates of Hell. He began going to dinner parties without her. ‘C’est une sauvage,’ he once explained to a host who was walking him home, when the latter wondered why they had encountered Beuret waiting for Rodin in the park. Around the same time, he acquired new assistants, among them the young sculptor Camille Claudel, with whom he would soon embark on a stormy affair. Claudel was followed by a number of others, including Gwen John, as Rodin’s increasing celebrity drew to his studio a harem of models and lovers. But as Claudel discovered when she tried to make him leave Beuret and marry her, this most spectacularly unfaithful of artists had his own kind of loyalty. A wicked drawing by Claudel, one of a series of angry caricatures she sent to her lover, shows the naked bodies of Rodin and Beuret, the woman on all fours, her rear end apparently stuck to that of the man, who grabs hold of a tree trunk in a futile effort to pull himself free. Claudel called it Le Collage – ‘Glued Together’. Many a woman whose lover refuses to leave his wife might recognise the sentiment, but Rodin was not married. (‘Collage’ is also slang for an illicit liaison.) The drawing is dated 1892; Rodin stuck with Beuret, in some fashion, for another quarter-century. Not until 1917, when worries about his estate prompted him to legalise their relation, did Rose Beuret become Mme Rodin. Asked by a witness why he had not married her long ago, she had a simple answer: ‘He told me if I was his wife I would not obey him as well as I do.’ She died two weeks later.