The artists and their models

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THEY ARE art's most enduring double-act. From behind an easel or a sketch book, the artist observes a nude model. It's a scene from popular myth that reinforces the image of the artist as outsider. Who but an artist, or a lover, may stand before a naked man or woman for hours on end and just look? For both it's a look of love, although many artists profess sexual indifference. For others, though, the study of a living nude is charged with an essential creative electricity in which the energy of sexual desire is sublimated into art.

Artists have always recognised the need for detachment in the studio, though many have struggled to keep their distance. Pliny tells us that the painter Apelles fell in love with the concubine Campaspe as he painted her portrait for Alexander the Great; upon the General's orders, he was forbidden from approaching her until the portrait was completed. Benvenuto Cellini insisted on using young virgins as models; once they had satisfied him in the studio, he would allow himself the satisfaction of deflowering them. Another virgin-hunter was Renoir, who liked them 'plump and peachy'. But the search for the perfect model often ended in the brothel: the whore's ability to feel at ease with a man when naked made her a prime subject for the artists like Renoir, Degas and Lautrec who were dissatisfied with the idealised (and masculine) anatomy of the soldiers and pugilists who had been employed by the Academies since the 16th century.

Sometimes, however, the unashamed sexuality of such women proved the artist's undoing. Degas wrote that he had risked syphillis with a 19-year-old model, and Delacroix noted in despair that his beautiful model Helene had 'taken away part of my energy': it drove him to work from photographs of nudes. The model as muse drove other artists to distraction: Ingres noted the addresses of his favourite models on the backs of their likenesses for fear of losing them; Rodin paid models to remain in his studio day and night. Others, like Raphael, Rembrandt, Modigliani and Picasso, secured the lasting services of their models by making them their mistresses.

Today's models enjoy a more enlightened relationship with their artists. But the relationship between the male artist and the female nude subject is as intense as ever, as four of our leading figurative artists, renowned for their nudes, explain to Iain Gale . . .

Henri Matisse (above) pictured in his studio in 1939, by George Brassai, drawing a favourite model. The artist's writings contain numerous references to his relationship with models: 'The living model, the naked body of a woman . . . must awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express . . . The presence of the model counts to keep me in a sort of flirtatious state which ends in a rape. The rape of whom? Of myself. . .I depend absolutely upon my model. . . It is in the abandon of her relaxation that I guess which pose suits her, and I then enslave myself to it.'


I DRAW studies of my wife all of the time. I like drawing her. She's a painter, too, and although I don't want to interfere with her work, she's always there, and she's always prepared to sit for me at certain hours of the day. We have an agreement about it. It's nice to work from someone you know. But not every artist finds that to be the case. Sickert used to say that you shouldn't be involved with your sitter. That you had to be impersonal. But I don't know that he stuck to that advice himself.

Of all the artists who thought in the same way that I do, Bonnard is the example that comes to mind. Here was an artist who like me worked from his wife all the time. She appears throughout his work, in interiors with her dressing, sleeping, taking a bath and at the family table. It makes such a difference if you know the model.

On the occasions when I do use a professional model they tend to be people whom I know and who have sat for me for a long time. After all, if somebody's going to sit there posing for you for four or five hours three times a week, like they did for Coldstream and do for Euan Uglow, then you've really got to pay them. But I don't work like that in any case. I'd rather make studies and paint from those and then come back to the pose and get it right again and make another study, and so on. A lot of people get an obsession with a particular person and I think you can say that that applies to me. I just feel at ease with my wife and I like that. It's all terribly easy.

Bernard Dunstan shows with Agnew's of Bond Street, London


ONE tends to get drawn to a particular type of life model. With Renoir and Rubens it was fat ladies. But Giacometti for example was quite the opposite. I like a lot of the bone showing through. I'm interested in anatomy - what goes on under the skin. I also like to draw men. Of course there are none of the old professionals like Quentin Crisp around any more, but I did do some drawings of a punk a little while ago. He's very thin - anorexic - and extraordinarily strange looking.

I like models who can move. When I'm drawing females I often end up with dancers. By the age of 25 most dancers have hurt themselves too badly to go on professionally. They're ideal for my purposes. They know how to use a pose and are also interesting to look at.

Most of the female models I use stay at it for a year or so. Many are artists themselves. I want someone who takes part and is interested in what I'm doing. I've got a very beautiful French girl at the moment. She's a ballet dancer and she's fairly typical. Every now and then you get someone so good that they're in a lot of demand. But there's nothing sexual about it.

Life drawing is in fact very hard, testing work. We're just beginning to see a revival of interest. When we first set up the drawing studio here at the RCA one of the female models was changing in a room where there was a brick out of the wall. The male drawing students were peering at her through it as she was undressing. She came storming through. She was furious. And that's the difference. It's the voyeur thing. The naked body is very unsexy. It really only becomes erotic when its partly clothed. I once asked one of the girls who was modelling for me if she felt that modelling was in any way at all sexy. 'No,' she said, 'it's as sexy as a cheese sandwich.'

Bryan Kneale is Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art.


FOR ME the model is a vehicle for light. My paintings are about light. I painted Valerie for the way the light comes through her hair. For me the female figure (I never paint males) can be the most beautiful object. I want to celebrate beauty. I admire Lucian Freud's work but I wouldn't thank you for any of his models. I know I'm out of fashion, but heads and faces are not important to me, the figure is secondary to the light.

There are two approaches to painting the female nude: either you're totally involved or like me you look at her as an object. It's said that Augustus John said you couldn't paint a model till you'd slept with her. Whereas Sickert said, 'When I paint a model she is no different to me than a sack of potatoes.' I'm not as detached as that but I always keep a distance between me and my model. Of course, I've got to get on with them.

I have one here every day at 7am, and I usually keep the same one for a year or so. But if I became 'involved' with my models it would change my painting. Saying that, my late wife was the best model I ever had. But you can't get your partner to pose all the time. I often tell my models, 'Don't get involved with a painter, he'll never let you put your clothes on.' I'd like to be like Rodin, have a model here all the time and get to know the way she moves. That's why I keep them for a long time. You've got to know them visually incredibly well - the way they relax. Everybody imagines artists lay their models: 'There's a woman in your studio with her clothes off, and you don't do anything about it?' But really, there's nothing excessive about taking your clothes off for an artist.

Ken Howard shows with the New Grafton Gallery, Barnes SW13


THE INTEREST for me is entirely sexual. How can it be otherwise? That's the buzz. Having said that, it's not about fornication. It's just that we're not normally allowed to look at each other. Of course it's all right for lovers to look directly at each other: in a sense they're devouring one another. But for the artist and his model there's a special kind of mood. It's a sort of sublimated sexuality. I don't see how it can possibly be anything else. I'm talking about a man drawing a nude female model in a studio. I've spoken to friends of mine who are female life artists and for them drawing a female nude is somehow self-descriptory.

I've got four models at the moment. I tend to meet any new models socially, at parties. In fact often, once they've found out what I do, they themselves approach me and suggest that they might pose. I think that some women will dare themselves into this situation where they'll pose nude for an artist. Possibly they wonder how they'd react.

The main requirement for me is that I should be able to feel comfortable alone in my studio with that person for a long period of time. If it was otherwise it would be unbearable. My drawings tend to come out once I've done the looking, after the models have left. It all comes together later.

My girlfriend is a little bit jealous about the ladies who strip off for me. Of course that's only natural. Two of the models that I use are married and it's been quite important for them to present their husbands to me. I think that my girlfriend will have to start posing for me at some point. But it's always better if you're not actually involved sexually with your model. I've done both. I painted my ex-wife while we were married and there was a difference. She was less easy to work with - more manipulative. She had an edge.

Victor Newsome recently stopped showing with the Marlborough gallery after being asked to stop using his model, Anna, because 'her breasts were distressing the buyers'. He hopes to show again elsewhere soon.

(Photograph omitted)