It takes two: The model and the artist

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Artist's Model (1895), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 39.6 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Emma Dupont, Lise Tréhot, and Hetty Pettigrew are names which probably mean nothing to you, not in comparison with those of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Theodore Roussel, the artists for whom they modelled. This is the first of two articles looking at the importance of the model to the artist and their art.

Many figurative paintings are the result of a partnership between the artist and their model. It’s a partnership which often extends beyond art into their personal lives, but is seldom acknowledged by either party. Few artists give much credit to their models, sometimes a cryptic mention of their name in the title. Ironically, we come to know the faces and bodies of those models far better than those of the artist, so at least the long-suffering model achieves some kind of immortality.

In many circumstances, models are called on to hold certain postures for uncomfortably long times.

Kirsty Whiten, Flatfoot Fronting (2015), oil and varnish on canvas, 120 x 150 cm, the artist’s collection. © 2015 Kirsty Whiten.

Kirsty Whiten’s models have had to be lithe, nimble, and very patient to give her the time to capture such dynamic poses.

Ellen Altfest, Torso (2011), oil on canvas, 26 x 35.2 cm, ONE2 Collection, USA. Image courtesy White Cube © Ellen Altfest / White Cube.
Ellen Altfest, Torso (2011), oil on canvas, 26 x 35.2 cm, ONE2 Collection, USA. Image courtesy White Cube © Ellen Altfest / White Cube.

But they are momentary in comparison with marathons spread over several months, as required by Ellen Altfest’s highly detailed realism. In order to achieve this, she enforces a five minute break every thirty minutes of posing, but even then models may have to drop out because of the number of days required posing for each of her paintings.

A few artists have pondered their relationship with their models visually,

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Artist’s Model (1895), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 39.6 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Artist’s Model (1895) is one of a series of works in which he considered the artist – here, Gérôme himself in the role of a sculptor – the model, and the art work. In this painting he shows us his model, Emma Dupont, himself, and the marble sculpture on which he is working. Behind Emma is a completed polychrome statue of a woman (possibly the same model) putting her head through a hoop.

Like so many others, Emma Dupont arrived in Paris with her lover at the age of seventeen, only to be abandoned by him. Penniless, she was introduced to modelling by Alfred Stevens, and it was Fernand Cormon who first persuaded her to pose nude. She worked for several other artists before catching Gérôme’s eye, and quickly became his favourite. Over a period of about twenty years, she was frequently to be found naked in Gérôme’s studio, from which she made quite a comfortable living. No one knows if she had any closer relationship with him, or with any other artist.

Emma also appears in several of Gérôme’s orientalist paintings, as a woman of the harem or Odalisque: a topic which I will return to below.

One of the most famous of all artists’ models was a young Irish woman, Joanna Hiffernan, who appears in some of Whistler’s and Courbet’s paintings, and was a lover to both. Hiffernan seems to have been born in about 1843, and first met Whistler in 1860. She travelled with him to France in 1861, and posed there, in a studio in Boulevard des Batignolles, for one of his greatest paintings.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl – Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan (1862), oil on canvas, 214.6 × 108 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Whistler’s remarkable Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl (1862) shows her great beauty. But there was more to her than her looks: those who knew her remarked on her intelligence, the sympathy that she gave people, and the companionship that she provided the artist.

Attitudes towards artists’ models at the time were not even ambivalent: they were seen as little more than common prostitutes. When Whistler’s mother visited in 1864, Hiffernan had to be secreted away from her sight.

At some time around 1865-66, Hiffernan met Gustave Courbet, and when Whistler went off to Valparaiso for seven months in 1866, she travelled to Paris and posed for Courbet.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866), oil on canvas, 54 x 65 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Courbet’s initial modest portrait of Jo, the Beautiful Irish Girl (1866) was a harbinger of more to come.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), Woman with a Parrot (1866), oil on canvas, 129.5 x 195.6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Next, she is the erotically-charged nude in Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot (1866), then in a lesbian embrace in The Sleepers (1866), and possibly even the explicit headless nude of The Origin of the World (1866). After they had separated, Hiffernan raised Whistler’s illegitimate son by another lover, and re-appeared to pay her last respects at Whistler’s funeral in 1903.

Less well-known but as well-featured is Lise Tréhot, born in 1848, who moved as a child to Paris, as the daughter of a shopkeeper selling lemonade and tobacco. An older sister became the lover of a now-forgotten artist Jules Le Coeur, who in turn introduced Lise to the young painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir in 1865, when he was twenty-four, and she was seventeen.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Diana as Huntress (1867), oil on canvas, 197 × 132 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir started painting Lise Tréhot the following year, when she had just turned eighteen. Within another year, Lise posed nude for Renoir’s Diana as Huntress (1867), which was rejected by that year’s Salon. Over the next five years, Tréhot modelled for at least twenty paintings, and was in effect his only model for female figures during this formative period in his career. She also appears in two paintings by Frédéric Bazille.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), In the Summer (The Bohemian) (1868), oil on canvas, 85 x 59 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Renoir’s best portraits of Tréhot is In the Summer (The Bohemian), which he painted in 1868, when she would have been twenty.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Odalisque (1870), oil on canvas, 69.2 × 122.6 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Later, Renoir made her look as if she was in an Algerian harem in his Odalisque (1870), another of those popular faux-Orientalist paintings.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Parisiennes in Algerian Costume, or Harem (1872), oil on canvas, 156 x 128.8 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Probably the last of Renoir’s works to feature Tréhot is his Parisiennes in Algerian Costume, or Harem from 1872, where she appears as the woman at the right.

Renoir never mentioned Tréhot in any recorded source, but she is thought to have given birth to a son at the end of 1868, and is recorded as having a daughter in the summer of 1870. Renoir supported her financially throughout the rest of his life, and his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, continued to do so after his death.

Renoir and Tréhot seem to have separated suddenly in 1872, and it is thought that they never met or spoke again after that. She married in 1883, raised her own family with her architect husband, and died in Paris in 1922.

Three women who were a major influence over the paintings and careers of the artists who painted them. In the next article, I will consider how three sisters came to dominate British Aesthetic painting in the late nineteenth century.


Susan Waller’s superb article in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide.