The Social Construction and Deconstruction of the Female Model in 19th-Century France

By Lathers, Marie | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Social Construction and Deconstruction of the Female Model in 19th-Century France


Lathers, Marie, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In 1887, the French review La Vie Moderne published a series of articles by Paul Dollfus called 'Paris qui pose,' a title suggestive of numerous possible referents since, as Philippe Hamon has shown in detail, the act of posing occupied many 19th-century Parisian figures. Aristocrats and bourgeois, actresses and actors, writers and flaneurs, dandies and artists, all evidenced a will to pose that is admirably translated in Jules Janin's novel Le Piedestal (1832), just one instance of the literary inscription of this posturing. Lacking a pedestal on which to exhibit himself, Janin's arriviste, Prosper Chavigny, is thwarted in his attempt to attract the attention of the Parisian public eye: "Il avait compris ce qui lui manquait, c'etait son piedestal; il n'etait pas en vue, on ne le voyait pas; c'etait sa faute, et non pas celle des hommes" (28-29). Fortunately, Prosper secures a pedestal during a voyage to Italy where he meets his future wife, an Italian beauty who will attract the right sort to his salon. For Janin, successful Parisian posturing requires a supporting base, and a beautiful, preferably exotic woman is the classic form of such support, the most reliable stand on which to display oneself.

Janin's reference to sculpture is not fortuitous. Although Prosper is not an artist (he has no particular talent at all), his desire is to emulate the Salon artist by sculpting a work of art, himself, through reference to a woman, his wife. Through his wife's body, Prosper exposes himself, through her he prostitutes himself, through her he becomes both model and copy of the persona he seeks to compose. This leads us to a more specific sense of the noun poser, and to the actual subject of Dollfus's exploration in La Vie Moderne: the artist's model is the poser par excellence whose pose depends for its efficacy on a realist conception of the production of the artwork, a work meant in turn to be displayed or posed at the annual Salon. Alternately acting as mediators between society's powerful players and functioning as material references for powerful images, women posed men and posed for men in 19th-century France, playing a dual role noted by Hamon: "Sur le boulevard comme dans un salon, elle est objet d'exposition (de soi) et de 'representation' (du statut de son mari)" (179). Prosper may have climbed onto a pedestal, but it is his wife who assumes the representational burden of the poser.

While history has left us with famous posing women, from Phryne and Lais to La Fornarina and Saskia, the social category of professional female models - as distinct from these modeling courtesans (Lais), wives (Saskia), and lovers (Phryne, La Fornarina) - is particular to the 19th century. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the 19th century invented the female model as an individual who could be classified and whose history could be written. From the 17th to the early 19th centuries, the official French Academy had hired only male models for the nude pose; the life drawing - also called an academie - was a practice exclusively reserved for the representation of the male body, and the conflation of the terms Academie (official governing body) and academie (official representation of the body) is indicative of this exclusivity. Although artists certainly used female nudes in their private ateliers - a practice prohibited by the Academy - the institutionalization of the specifically female nude is a 19th-century phenomenon, as demonstrated by Candace Clements in her article on the Academy in the 18th century, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her study of the first thirty years of the 19th century. Although, as Nikolaus Pevsner remarks, female models "were still prohibited in almost all public art schools in 1850 and later" (231), the 19th century is certainly the watershed era for the female model and the female academie.

To understand this situation we must look more closely at the several meanings that the term "academy" had in the 19th century: the Academy was the official body that juried the annual Salon during most of the century; academies, such as the Academie Julian, were unofficial art schools (as distinct from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts); an academie was a life drawing of a (typically male) nude, traditionally the crucial index of an artist's potential; and, academie referred to the pose of the model for the above drawing.

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