Why have artists’ models been favorite characters of authors across the ages? They’re malleable. They’re alluring. They’re often trouble. This map compares some of the most memorable literary sitters across genres and forms, and explores their relationships with the artists—from muse to monster, and unrequited love object to fantasy come to life.
“The really weird artist,” says the narrator of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror story “Pickman’s Model,” “has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in.” He speaks of Richard Upton Pickman, whose ghastly paintings of a dog-faced, corpse-eating ghoul capture the essence—and the grotesque reality—of terror. But these words could also apply to Basil Hallward, creator of the fateful picture in Oscar Wilde’s novel. Both artists are mortally entranced by their models.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hallward unwittingly allows his model’s inner demons to triumph. His portrait bears the scars of Dorian’s age and debauchery while handsome Dorian magically remains young and unblemished, free to live a life of iniquity. Dorian eventually murders Hallward, enraged by the horrors the portrait has produced. The ending of “Pickman’s Model” is ambiguous, but a later Lovecraft work, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, reveals that Pickman has been transformed into a ghoul himself. Perhaps he too is destroyed by his model, one that is no mere figment of his imagination: Pickman obsessively paints from a photograph he took of the creature.
“Pickman’s Model” and “The Real Thing” explore the perils of using models who are too realistic for the subject matter. H.P. Lovecraft’s painter, Richard Upton Pickman, and Henry James’s unnamed artist narrator each masterfully capture the essence of their sitters—for the worse. James’s illustrator struggles to draw the Monarchs, a pair of down-on-their-luck aristocrats. Although the Monarchs are “the real thing” (i.e., actual members of high society, unlike the lower-class sitters he usually poses as blue bloods), he finds he can portray them only as they are, not as he wants them to appear in his work, and they become grotesque caricatures of the aristocracy. The Monarchs may be the real thing, but they’re not the ideal thing. Pickman also can’t escape the reality of his subject, a very real and very hideous monster. In the end, both painters are damaged by their models’ authenticity: James’s artist realizes he must fire the Monarchs because his art has suffered, perhaps irreparably, from their influence; Pickman’s ghoulish images get him first fired from his job at an art academy, then dragged down to a horrific underworld.
Like the lovelorn sculptor from classical myth for whom George Bernard Shaw titled his play Pygmalion, the snobbish linguist Henry Higgins models his “creation,” Eliza Doolittle, into his ideal of womanhood. Higgins considers the English language a lost art; on a bet, he imbues cockney Eliza—his living work of art—with its beauty. He teaches her how to speak, as well as behave and dress, with serene sophistication. Perhaps he falls a little bit in love with her in the process. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, portraitist Basil Hallward certainly falls in love with his model; his idealistic portrayal renders Dorian a paragon of youthful beauty and poised urbanity.
Higgins and Hallward realize too late that their one-dimensional ideals have been confounded by their creations. In both cases the models take over and the artists lose control. Eliza and Dorian step out of their frames to become complex and independent people, not the limiting, if flattering, portraits their creators imagined them to embody. They leave the artists at best bewildered (Higgins) and at worst dead (Hallward).
The art of pretense, mastered by the best models, raises issues of social mobility and class subversion. George Bernard Shaw’s distaste for the cockney accent inspired the character of Eliza Doolittle, Pygmalion’s upwardly mobile flower seller. But he may also have been influenced by Miss Churm, a model in “The Real Thing.” Churm is “only a freckled cockney, but she could represent everything, from a fine lady to a shepherdess; she had the faculty, as she might have had a fine voice or long hair.” Bewildered at her plasticity, the Monarchs, aristocrats reduced to posing for pictures, lament Churm’s superiority, “the perverse and cruel law in virtue of which the real thing could be so much less precious than the unreal.”
In Pygmalion class subversion has darker implications. Higgins’s artful transformation of Eliza is astonishingly successful because of Eliza herself, a perfectly malleable model. But while she fools everyone into thinking her a duchess, her allure is temporary. Higgins loses interest in Eliza, who finds herself in an impossible position: She can no sooner go back to her guttersnipe life than she can become a true member of the aristocracy. She chooses a central path by marrying a middle-class man.
Tracy Chevalier’s best-seller Girl With a Pearl Earring and Louisa May Alcott’s Marble Woman feature beautiful, innocent female protagonists who are physically and psychologically entrapped by the temperamental male artists they live with. Yet these bleak scenarios have a silver lining: The models are also artists in training. In Pearl Earring Johannes Vermeer forces the family servant, Griet, to sit for him, even though he knows by doing so she risks angering his wife and thus losing her job. He sees, however, that Griet has an eye for his craft, and he teaches her to mix paints and observe light. In A Marble Woman sculptor Bazil Yorke hides away his ward and model, Cecilia Stein, then marries her to further enforce his dominance. But he teaches her to sculpt along the way, and in the end, Cecilia molds Bazil into a loving husband. Perhaps masochistically, perhaps for the love of art, the women of both stories develop romantic feelings for their masters.
“How could you ever prick those perfect ears, / Even to put the pearl there!” cries the wretched Andrea del Sarto to his wife and favorite model in Robert Browning’s semibiographical poem about the Renaissance painter. Johannes Vermeer has no such qualms about body modification in Girl With a Pearl Earring. Not only does he pierce the ear of his model and servant, Griet, he does so with his jealous wife’s expensive ornament, in an exquisite, symbolic act of sexual sublimation. The two works share several themes—both tell the story of a real-life artist hungry for fame and frustrated with his dependence on a crude and demanding patron. Most exciting, though, is the complex intimate relationship between artist and model, and the jealousy it inspires.
In Browning’s poem, Del Sarto’s beloved cheats on him, and he knows it; he can’t keep his wife in line, much less “pierce” her. The relationships in Pearl Earring have precisely the opposite power dynamics: Vermeer’s wife (whom he refuses to paint, telling her, “You...are not part of this world”) is convinced her husband is sleeping with Griet, but he is not. Vermeer remains the confident master of his house.
For artists and their models, love and art often become messily intertwined. Jealous sculptor Bazil Yorke of Louisa May Alcott’s Marble Woman has deliberately expunged love from his life, and he attempts to teach Cecilia “Cecil” Stein, to do the same. “She loves nothing but her art,” he boasts to a friend. But Cecil secretly loves Bazil, who is her legal guardian, and Bazil—by the end of this sordid Gothic tale, which involves forced marriage, near incest and female imprisonment—admits his love for her. Robert Browning also pits love and art against each other in “Andrea del Sarto.” Del Sarto is resigned to his wife’s repeated adultery, yet he finds that every Madonna he paints has, quite inappropriately, her face.
Alcott’s Yorke ultimately proves more successful than Browning’s del Sarto; not only does he get the girl, he is independently wealthy and never has to sell a sculpture. Del Sarto begins losing commissions just as he has lost his wife’s affections. The moral of both stories: Art is a sorry substitute for true love.
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Louisa May Alcott’s Marble Woman offer distorted takes on the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion, a sculptor who carves a statue of his ideal woman, Galatea, so realistically that he falls in love with it and brings it to life with his kiss.
In A Marble Woman, Bazil Yorke “lovelessly” marries Cecilia Stein to quell gossip about their hermetic May-December, student-teacher cohabitation. An observer notes, “I don’t envy him his handsome wife, unless he possesses the art of warming and waking his Galatea.” Professor Higgins, in Shaw’s play, creates his Galatea but cannot show her enough love to keep her.
Like the mythical Pygmalion, both Yorke and Higgins reject real women for their ideal yet soon find their creations may be perfect but aren’t truly alive. Cecilia becomes the cold “marble woman” by suppressing both her love for Bazil and her artistic instincts and developing a self-destructive opium addiction. But Bazil ultimately warms her by requiting her love. Eliza Doolittle, by contrast, never thaws to Higgins, because he sees her only as an artwork, not a real woman, and never deigns to show her respect or kindness.