Meet The Models: Exhibit Explores The People Behind The Paintings An exhibit at Smithsonian's Archives of American Art investigates the relationship between artists and their models. The stern woman in Grant Wood's American Gothic? That was actually his sister, Nan.
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Meet The Models: Exhibit Explores The People Behind The Paintings

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Meet The Models: Exhibit Explores The People Behind The Paintings

Meet The Models: Exhibit Explores The People Behind The Paintings

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now to a different art form. We pose for selfies with the tap of a finger. Posing for an artist is a different matter. It involves cooperation and concentration. The relationship between artists and their models is the focus of an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. NPR special correspondent, Susan Stamberg, went to take a look.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: An artist friend, Virginia Isbell, once asked me to pose for her - a quick pastel sketch in her Paris studio. I was flattered and amazed to be on that side of a work of art. Never have I been looked at so intently except by a parent or a lover. I was being fixed, examined, absorbed and for all the intensity there was absolutely nothing personal about it. I was an object to be replicated. Her eyes went from my face to her sketch, my nose my eyes, mouth, chin, pastel-ed onto paper in 20 minutes - fun. But it felt as if something had been taken from me. I thought of Matisse and his lifetime of models.

ALISON LESLIE GOLD: There's Lisette, Helaine, Lilly, Lulu...

STAMBERG: In her novel, "The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back From The Dead," Alison Leslie Gold portrays the painter reminiscent.

GOLD: Jeanne, who married my brother. Another Jeanne...

STAMBERG: Alison Gold says to do their job, those women - all models really - must master the rigors of a pose, holding stock still...

GOLD: ...And for hours and hours and hours. Often in a cold studio. This is a testament to the models who stood there and didn't shiver and try to control their goose bumps.

STAMBERG: You can't see the goose bumps but there are several photographs of Matisse and his models. The women are stark naked. Matisse, ever the gentleman, sits inches away in a suit, vest and hat. He looks warm. In 1851, Worthington Whittredge only had to seem cold when he posed for the painting "Washington Crossing The Delaware," that iconic image of the revolutionary general standing as soldiers row him across the icy river. Whittredge was in Germany studying with a painter, Emanuel Leutze. Curator Elizabeth Botten says for his painting, Leutze got Washington's actual uniform copied. In a manuscript on view with the Archives of American Art, Whittredge tells why he got the modeling job.

ELIZABETH BOTTEN: He says in his essay that he was chosen because he fit the suit.

STAMBERG: Well, the suit fit but it was heavy. And holding the pose for three hours, so Leutze could get the drapery right in Washington's cloak, that didn't suit Whittredge a bit.

BOTTEN: I was nearly dead at the end of it but they poured champagne down my throat and I lived through it.

STAMBERG: What's so hard about the job?

BOTTEN: Well, I think it's really difficult to stand still. If you think about how you feel at the end of the day after you've been sitting at your desk hunched over and then imagine doing that with your arms twisted above your head, without any clothes on, it's a challenge.

STAMBERG: In San Francisco after World War II, some artists' models decided they needed to get organized. Florence Allen was a founding member of The San Francisco Model's Guild - the nation's first nonprofit association for models. Still in operation today, it's called The Bay Area Model's Guild. Her guild working cards in the Archives' show. Allen was one of the popular models of the day and got lots of work. San Francisco was a hub for artists after the war. Art schools, studios, shifts in styles and tastes made it a busy time for models. Some of the busy-ness was problematic.

BOTTEN: They wanted to make sure that the models were paid on time and paid at all. They needed to have ensured breaks for rest periods. They needed to be in a warm studio. They needed to be in environments where they felt safe and not in a dangerous situation.

STAMBERG: And the guild set standards for their models.

BOTTEN: They were expected to be clean. They were expected to be on time and be professional.

STAMBERG: Now, if you are posing for a relative - Mary Cassatt's sister, Cezanne's wife - she looks so long-suffering in his portrait of her - worn out and no longer game. Of course, he worked so slowly he had to use artificial fruit for his still-lifes. The real stuff kept spoiling. If you're related to the painter, you don't need a guild card, but your rights could get trampled on in other ways. In his classic 1930 painting "American Gothic," Grant Wood turned his beloved sister, Nan, into it dyspeptic spinster.

BOTTEN: He painted her to look much older. She sort of has a relaxed face so it looks like she's frowning and she looks very severe.

STAMBERG: She's not the one with the pitchfork but you don't want to be anywhere near her - that woman in the painting -for fear she could grab that pitchfork.

BOTTEN: I think she could have.

STAMBERG: The model, Nan Wood, took a lot of heat for that painting.

BOTTEN: The public reaction to the painting was so rough on her that her brother, Grant, felt bad for her. So he said, I'm going to paint a portrait of you.

STAMBERG: That 1931 portrait shows a kinder, gentler Nan in a pretty sleeveless top - yellow with black polka-dots. In one hand she holds a plum. In the other, a baby chick. The Archives exhibits an essay Nan typed in 1947 about posing for that portrait with her modeling partner, the family's pet fowl.

BOTTEN: The chick got used to staying up late with Grant when he would paint late at night. And it was squawking terribly one night, so he put it in a crock, and put a book on top of it and forgot about it. They all go to bed. The next morning, her mother gets up early and discovers the chick passed out in the crock.

STAMBERG: Mother Grant was alarmed - called the family. They ran in and they started fanning the bird, trying to bring it back to life. It worked. The chick came to - weak, but with it. Nan Wood wrote, Grant didn't have her do much posing that day. Whether it's a pet, a relative, a professional model, their names are rarely known - their stories even less so. This exhibit, culled from artist's papers and records at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, fills in some blanks. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

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