Life Drawing and the Male Model
We all hold an image of a life class in our heads: a naked human holding a pose in front of a group of clothed students silently transposing what they see into pencil, paint or charcoal.
Jeremy Deller calls the lifeclass the bedrock of art and art history. “The life class is a special place in which to scrutinize the human form. As the bedrock of art education and art history, it is still the best way to understand the body’.
But what does bedrock actually mean? To most people, mastery of the nude proves the artist’s ability to draw properly, ‘properly’ meaning in a realistic manner. And that is certainly part of it. But the life class has a bigger history, one yoked as tightly to the history of post Renaissance western art as the hand that holds the pencil.
Authority for the life class can be traced back to Alberti’s On Painting, an Italian treatise of 1435 devoted to promoting the new realistic and scientifically based way of painting, as opposed to the out-fashioned medieval way, as a fine art involving science and intellect as well as skill.
This new modern art from Florence was inspired by a growing awareness of the high standard of classical art, a standard which became a goal for the fifteenth century artists of the Renaissance. It was underpinned by Brunelleschi’s invention of the perspective system two decades earlier and the conviction that a good artist should be able to draw from life, that is, could paint trees that looked natural as opposed to the stylized broccoli stems of medieval art. The aim was to see a painting as a window in the wall, a standard that remained in place until the end of the nineteenth century. As part of his argument, Alberti claimed a hierarchy of subject matter which had at the summit paintings of classical history, a category soon expanded to include episodes from history and the Bible. These moral and uplifting subjects demanded the ability to paint convincing figures to play their part on the painted stage.
Within a hundred years, of Alberti’s treatise, artists were gathering to draw the nude particularly in Rome and Florence where the Medici sponsored in the sixteenth century, then wider afield in the seventeenth century. In Paris in 1648, art as a respected profession received a royal seal of approval with the opening of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, a move that was followed in most European countries by the end of the eighteenth century and in America with the founding of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1805. The journey is visible at first in prints and drawings showing informal groups around a model and later in ambitious paintings of life classes in the prestigious national academies, their intriguing new subject matter guaranteed to attract attention. (fig 0)
Unlike the smaller schools and informal groups which usually met by lamplight to draw the nude, the national academies prided themselves on their rigorous standards and by the start of the nineteenth century a formalized course of training had emerged which, with minor variations, was common to them all. While all aspects of art were taught, from portraiture to the achievement of landscape perspective through colour, it was the mastery of drawing the naked human body that was the aim of the most ambitious students, the ones wishing to produce works that dealt with the serious matters of life and would therefore be taken most seriously.
The national academies introduced students gradually to the human body, teaching them what lay beneath the skin in anatomy classes, then having them copy bodies from admired drawings, paintings and sculptures, and only then allowing them to work from the live model. The life class was the final destination, one that had to be earned with completion of all the other exercises. The prior anatomical information and knowledge of past masterpieces was not only to familiarize the student with the body but also to help him (and until the end of the nineteenth century it always was a him) improve on the less than perfect life class models by subtly bringing their flawed reality closer to the most glorious painted and sculpted nudes already in existence. Proof that a student had mastered the ability to draw the nude was evidence that he had successfully completed his training. In a selfportrait of 1746, the young Spanish artist Melendez proudly displays his academie, the French name for the finished life drawing that was the gateway to his profession. (fig 0)
Choosing models for the life class was a serious matter. As far as academic teaching was concerned, it was the male body with its clear delineation of muscles that was the most fit for purpose. Alberti’s statement of 1435 still held:‘Before dressing a man we first draw him nude then we enfold him in draperies. So in painting the nude we place first his bones and muscles which we then cover with flesh so that it is not difficult to understand where each muscle is beneath.’ ( FN 1 ) We can assume that the four male models which marked the first expenditure of the newly formed British Royal Academy in 1768 were the finest specimens available. Diaries and letters offer evidence of what this meant. ‘ I frequently see an old beggar without legs in Holborn,’ wrote the artist C. R. Leslie in 1812, ’who was one of the rioters at the time Newgate was burnt, and had both his legs shot off by a chain-shot in that very street… I am told his body is remarkably fine, and that he has frequently sat to artists—very often to Mr West’ – Benjamin West, that is, the historical painter who had left Pennsylvania to study in Europe and became president of the Royal Academy in 1792. (FN 2) Models whose bodies approximated to the most admired painted and sculpted predecessors were particularly valued and became known as the Rubens or the Michelangelesque model.The Royal Academy council minutes of 1815 turned down an applicant after inspection because ‘his figure is not sufficiently good for that of a model.’ In 1822, the Academy resolved to pay a professor of gymnastics to instruct a model called Thomas Bromhead in ‘various exercises for the purpose of developing his form.’(FN 3)
It was no chance that the first models hired by the Royal Academy were male. The male nude came with an unblemished classical pedigree. When the Greeks worshipped the human form, it was the masculine human form. Apollo was the most handsome of the gods, Hercules the strongest and their bodies were modeled on those of the finest athletes. The classical pedigree of male nude sculptures and the muscular bodies of the models who resembled them, made the male nude model far more important than the female whose fleshy earthiness disqualified them from interesting and active poses. Translated into life class practice, the male body became indispensible for teaching young artists the structure of the body.
Women had a different history. From the start, the notion of the female model was circled with an aura of unease. There is evidence from the Greek and Roman historians that women modeled, but a female model is never once mentioned without a bit of what the British call ‘nudge nudge, wink, wink.’ Unlike the men who were sculpted in all their naked glory as befitted the marble representation of the perfect bodies of the gods and heroes, the lower halves of female classical statuary were wrapped in marble drapery or had their sex coyly covered by a hand. Their beauty was lowlier than that of the men, who stand straight and strong without a stitch, their genitals nestling below the tidy rows of pubic pincurls. This view of the female body as an imperfect version of the male, animal like and inharmoniously designed, was inherited by Christianity where it was explained anew by Eve’s original sin and viewed as a container leaking milk and blood and all things lowly (an intriguing opposite to the sugar and spice and all things nice version of females in the nursery rhyme). In Renaissance Italy, Christ was painted with the body of a classical God; it was not until Giorgione painted his Reclining Venus in the early sixteenth century that a female nude appeared in art to match its beauty .
The fact of a naked woman stared at by surrounding men was a problem for authorities concerned with educating the young and raising the status of art. When, a few months of opening, the Royal Academy hired its first two female models, it paid them more than the men in an attempt to attract a better class of woman: not a prostitute in other words. Until the nineteenth century, all academies employed more male than female models and in some countries, Spain for instance, none at all. In the eighteenth century, the Royal Academy’s allowed only married men and those over twenty into the female life class and the official Minutes hint at rowdiness that had to be contained: a pea shooter was mentioned, for example. When Johann Zoffany painted two of its most famous male models, one in process of disrobing , in The Life Class of the Royal Academy of 1771, the two female founding members of the academy, successful artists both, were included as portraits on the studio wall. Showing them in the actual presence of male life models would have ruined their reputations and scandalized the painting’s viewers.
A reverse of this situation occurred at the end of the nineteenth century when women students were finally allowed into the academies. Nobody put their fears surrounding the life class into words, but the authorities were clearly terrified about what might develop when a male model posed naked in the midst of a group of women. In 1890s Britain, a nervous Royal Academy decreed that the male model in the women’s life class should first put on bathing drawers, then wind nine feet of fabric around them, and finally secure the whole outfit with a belt –to make sure the costume stayed in place, one supposes . (fig 0)
Over the decades a life class routine emerged of regulated posing sessions and rest pauses for the model and rules of silence for the students. Models were expected to be punctual, sober and to hold their pose and fraternisation with the students was frowned on. A raised dais enabled the students to see clearly and an assortment of boxes, poles and ropes helped models hold the more difficult poses (Fig 0). For reasons of expense, models usually posed singly– though as an end of year treat, a master might set two or even three models as a grouping from an admired work of art , the three graces, for example, or a group of gladiators or a contrasting group of light and dark models. Until the twentieth century, for reasons of propriety, male and female models were forbidden to pose together. The stove which kept the heating high for the models meant that students worked in air full of smoke and the smell of tobacco.
In the nineteenth century, the cult of the ideal body began losing ground to realism. The Renaissance dream of an ideal nature (looking at five male torsos to construct the perfect torso) was replaced with fidelity to nature’s idiosyncracies. Nineteenth century narrative painters were unable to put brush to canvas without the perfect model standing before them – even if the perfect model required flea powder and brown paper to stand on, as the painter Luke Fildes recalled in his autobiography. In the second half of the century, the art market gobbled paintings, particularly narrative paintings, like a greedy child In 1845, Charles Dickens recognized half the models in the model market at the Spanish Steps in Rome from the walls of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition: there was the assassin model leaning with folded arms against a wall; the haughty model who always looks over his shoulder and seems to be going away; and the patriarch model with the long white beard. (FN 4) Written with intent to amuse, of course, but with more than a grain of truth. The link that conventional nineteenth century artists believed existed between the quality of the model and the quality of the work is not so bizarre if you consider today’s search for authenticity in period films and TV adaptations.
In the art schools things continued as they always had. And while men reigned supreme, once the female nude was established as an artistic category in its own right , women were sought who could approximate to the great nudes that followed Giorgione’s Venus. In 1837 the landscape painter John Constable reported a remark by the figure painter William Etty that he had ‘procured’ (shades of prostitution!) a 17-year-old girl whom he described as ‘very like the Antigone and all in front memorably fine’. (FN 5) In 1871, the artist Edward Poynter hoped to employ the much admired Italian models for London’s new Slade School of Art : their sandal-wearing habit, he said, meant that their feet had not been ruined by tight shoes. ‘The feet are always a most terrible stumbling block for beginners…not only on account of the deformities contracted from various causes, but of the swollen veins and the purple colour which would not be found in so great an extent in a person in motion but which naturally result from the model being obliged to stand for hours together in one position.’ FN 6)
By the end of the nineteenth century, when models had never been more in demand, both by art schools and by professional artists, art changed and with it the demand for models. The subject matter and style of this new kind of art introduced by impressionism in 1870s Paris did not require traditional models. Academies still needed them as did the old fashioned painters, but the practitioners of the new kind of art based on subjectivity and explorations of marks, colour and the picture plane, could manage very well without a model – or not those of the type that had ruled since the Renaissance.
In their place came the model we all think of today when the phrase artist’s model comes up: female, fun and as much a mistress as a model. From the start of the twentieth century, that very same sexuality that the life class and respectable painters tried so hard to exclude, became an exciting part of what model means. The story of how this happened has a lot to do with the invention of Bohemia, that French country within a country populated with creative artists and their mistresses brought to popular attention in 1845 by Henri Murger’s Scenes of Bohemian Life. Bohemia presented the artist as male, (at a time, it should be said, when women were beginning to find their way into art education) and the model as female, a seductive image which was exported around the western world and still controls our minds today. Like the man in a black beret at the easel, the female model/male artist pairing has become a kind of shorthand for art itself, despite the fact that artists are no longer exclusively male, despite the fact that sexual freedom is allowed to all and despite the fact that many artists do not use models at all. Its grip on our imagination has helped block out the history of modeling itself.
And what of the life class? It continued as always, of course. But the direction art had taken in the twentieth century was impossible to ignore and by the 1960s in some countries and in some academies, the life class was considered as outdated as grinding your own colours. Many who graduated from prestigious art schools after 1970 have never been taught to draw or expected to draw accurately in the traditional manner and have certainly never attended a life class . Nonetheless, there were always those who remained convinced of the validity of drawing from the live model and in the last few decades even schools and students who succumbed to the ‘express yourself’ form of art education have reintroduced life classes.
Into this history steps Iggy Pop. Like all models before him, he takes up a pose before a room of artists who set out to capture what they see on paper. He is male and well built and his revealing body shows the muscles beneath the skin. He is punctual, shows no temperament and does not fidget. The tutor sets the model’s position and the time honored process of pose, rest, pose again is followed. If he moves for any reason, to scratch, to cough, to drink a glass of water, he is able to return to the original pose, helped by a spot on the wall which Deller has directed him to look at. Though they find it hard to put into words, artists are convinced that good models exist. Everyone agrees: Iggy Pop is a good model.
As in earlier centuries the room is quiet, the pencils scrape, the tutor mumbles suggestions. If Thomas Bromhead were to walk in now he would feel at home. But there is a difference. Though Iggy Pop was chosen, as life class models always were, for his body, it is not because his body resembles some anonymous ideal of perfection but because his body is a kind of map of a career in which his body has played and still plays an important part. Rather than a generic ‘fine’ body, it is a particular and personal body and an artist’s job is to catch that in their chosen medium. Says Jeremy Deller: ‘For me it makes perfect sense for Iggy Pop to be the subject of a life class; his body is central to an understanding of rock music and its place within American culture. His body has witnessed much and should be documented.’
‘His body has witnessed much and should be documented.’ Substitute the words ‘this man’ for ‘his body’ and it could be a portrait painter speaking. But there are few naked portraits in the history of art and there are two reasons why. Firstly, whereas the portrait of a face is designed for public consumption, the naked body that belongs to it is not.And secondly, while face painting depends on catching the sitter’s individuality, the nude as an artistic category outside of the art class is based on generalized perfection. This makes the naked portrait an uncomfortable conflation of two sets of opposing ideas , the public and the private and the ideal and the general, which most artists and sitters prefer not to deal with. However, there are exceptions. Bronzino’s sixteenth century portrait of Andrea Doria as a god-like Neptune shows the older, softer body of the great Italian admiral and is all the more moving for that. (fig 0) A few twentieth century artists have taken up this challenge. Her portrait of 1970 of a shirtless Andy Warhol two years after he was shot is shocking in the vulnerability it reveals about this famously opaque artist. (fig 0) In her belief that the naked body moved a portrait closer to the truth, Alice Neel turned her gaze on her own 80 year old nakedness in a self portrait of 1980. In a group portrait, The Turkish Bath of 1973, Sylvia Sleigh presents a gallery of male types by detailing the patterns of her naked sitters’ body hair as precisely as the features on their faces. A shirtless Iggy Pop in paint – now that would be as arresting as the shirtless Iggy Pop in performance.
Frances Borzello is the author of The Naked Nude,Thames & Hudson 2012, and The Artist’s Model, Faber 2013. Her most recent book is Seeing Ourselves: women’s self portraits, Thames & Hudson 2016
1 Leon Battista Alberti , On Painting, Yale University Press 1971, Book 2 p.73
2 Tom Taylor, ed., Autobiographical Recollections by the late Charles Robert Leslie, R.A. (2 vols London 1860), vol 2, pp 12-13
3 Council Minutes of the Royal Academy, November 29, 1822
4 E. Johnson, ed, Letters from Charles Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts, Jonathan Cape 1953, p 66
5 Peter Leslie, ed., The Letters of John Constable, London 1931, pp .164-5
6 Edward J Poynter ,R.A., Ten Lectures on Art, London 1879, Lecture 3 p. 42
Anna Bilinska-Bohdanowicz Akt meski-studium (Male Semi Nude Study) 1885 , oil and gouache on canvas 37 7/16 x 26 3/8 in (95 x 67 cms) Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Inv.: MP 1986 MNW. Photo Teresa Zoltowska
This model study painted while the artist was a student at Academie Julian in Paris has a caricatured fellow female student with billowing apron and unruly hair in the top left hand corner
Self Portrait with Academie ,Luis Eugenio Melendez, 1746, Louvre Paris
Andrea Doria as Neptune, Agnolo Bronzino c.1530,Pinacoteca da Brera , Milan
Johann Zoffany,Life Class of the Royal Academy 1771-2
The Turkish Bath, Sylvia Sleigh 1973, The David and Alfred Smart University of Art, University of Chicago
Andy Warhol, Alice Neel 1970, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Male Nude in the Attitude of an Archer, John Everett Millais, c 1847 Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museums, Burnley Borough Council
Punch cartoon, May 21, 1924 The British Library, London ‘Who is this wonderful person Lady Tremayne is welcoming so effusively?’ ‘Oh, that’s Pepita, Johnstein’s model, you know.’ ‘Goodness, Lady Tremayne IS getting on in the world.’
Punch cartoon, May 30 1874, The British Library, London Female School of Art: Useful Occupation for Idle and Ornamental Young Men