The Model

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the author.


[From Essays Speculative and Suggestive, 1890. The short excerpt is from a long essay that originally appeared in The Fortnightly Review, December 1887. Symonds's deliberately provocative celebration of the superiority of nature over art is based on his close study of photographs of the male nude, of which he wrote to Edmund Gosse on 12 July 1890: "I have quite a vast collection now — enough to paper a little room I think. They become monotonous, but one goes seeking the supreme form & the perfect picture." He collected hundreds of photographs of Neapolitan boys by Guglielmo Plüschow.]


Those who have attentively studied a fine nude model, observing the gradations of colour, the play of light and shade and shadow upon the surface of the flesh, attending to the intricate details of muscular and bony structure thus revealed, marking the thrill of life in pulse and respiration and slight alterations of attitude, such students will perforce concede that no drawing, whether it be by the hand of Lionardo da Vinci or of Ingres, can bear comparison with the living miracle displayed before them. In so far as the drawing conscientiously portrays the model, it calls forth admiration by its exhibition of the draughtsman's skill; it instructs a learner by the revelation of his method. Yet it remains a poor and feeble shadow of the truth. Art, we say, is immeasurably below fact, so long as it attempts to rival the glow and richness of the living man by its mere shadow-scheme of imitation.

In a second degree such drawings are inferior to really careful photographs from the nude. I have before me a reproduction of the celebrated study of two naked men, which Raphael sent as a specimen of his skill to Albert Dürer, and also a photograph from a model in almost exactly the same position as one of Raphael's figures. The model in my photograph is somewhat coarse and vulgar. Yet no one, on comparing these two forms (the crayon study and the photograph), can fail, I think, to acknowledge the superiority of the more literal transcript from nature. Cunning as was Raphael's craft, there is slovenly drawing in the hands and feet, exaggerated markings in the knee joints, unmeaning salience of muscle on the back, and a too violent curve in the outline of the belly. The sun drew better than Raphael; and the photograph of this common model is more delightful to look at, because more adequate to the infinite study of nature, than the masterpiece of the great draughtsman of Urbino. Every detail of the body here is right, and in right relation to the whole; every sinew explains itself without effort and without emphasis; and the ripple of light an shade over the whole flesh surface exhibits vital energy in a way which no work of art has ever done.

It will, however, be objected that to contrast a chalk drawing with a photograph from nature is not fair. The former must always, to some extent, resemble a diagram, while the latter represents at least the fullness and completeness of life. I therefore pass on to a third degree of comparison; and for this purpose I will select companion reproductions by photography of Flandrin's famous study in the Luxembourg and of a living model in the same attitude. (Flandrin's picture, it will be remembered, represents a young man seated naked on a rock above the sea, with a craggy line of coast in the far distance. His legs are gathered up to the belly, and clasped with both hands above the ankles; his head is bent upon the knees, so that nothing of the facial expression is visible.)

Any unfairness in this comparison will certainly be to the injury of the model; for Flandrin's picture has all the advantage of the most consummate brush-work, and of the most careful attention to light and shade upon flesh surfaces. It is in fact an elaborate oil-painting of high technical excellence and elevated style. My photograph from the model is a comparatively poor one; the subject has not been selected with care, and the print is flat. Yet I learn from it innumerable niceties which Flandrin has not worked out something about the spring and strain of tendons in the wrist and forearm where the hand is clasped; something about the wrinkles in the belly caused by the forward bending of the back; something about the prolongation of the muscles of the pleura due to the stretching of the arm in that position. The model, moreover, is more interesting, more rich in suggestions of vital energy and movement. From the point of view of uncompromising realism, there can be no doubt which is the more satisfactory performance. The photograph of the model is second, the photograph of the picture is third, in its remove from nature, from reality, from truth. If the aim of art be to render a literal image of the object, then the art of the camera in this competition bears away the palm.

Nevertheless there is equally no doubt that Flandrin's study is a painted poem, while the photograph of the nude model is only what one may see any morning if one gets a well-made youth to strip and pose.

What then gives Flandrin's picture its value as an artistic product, as a painted poem? It tells no story, has no obvious intention; the painter clearly meant it to be as perfect a transcript from the nude, as near to the vraie vérité of nature, as he could make it. The answer is that, although he may not have sought to idealise, although he did not seek to express a definite thought, his picture is penetrated with spiritual quality. In passing through the artist's mind, this form of a mere model has been transfigured. while it has lost something of the vivacity and salient truth of nature, it has acquired permanence, dignity, repose, elevation. It has become "a thing of beauty, a joy for every," in a sense in which no living person, however far more attractive, more interesting, more multiformly charming, can be described by these terms.

Art will never match the infinite variety and subtlety of nature; no drawing or painting will equal the primary beauties of the living model. We cannot paint a tree as lovely as the tree upon the field in sunlight is. We cannot carve a naked man as wonderful as the youth stripped there upon the river's bank before his plunge into the water. Therefore the thorough-going Realist ought frankly to abandon figurative art, and to content his soul with the exhibition and contemplation of actual nature. This, however, is not the conclusion to which our argument leads; for after we have admitted the relative inferiority of art to nature, we know that are has qualities, all of them derived from the intellectual, selective, imaginative faculties of man, which more than justify its existence.

The brain, by interposing its activity in however slight a degree between the object and the representation, is bound to interpret, and in so far to idealise. The primary reality of the model, the secondary reality of the photographic portrait, are exchanged for reality as the artist's mind and heart have conceived it. Thus what a man sees and feels in the world around him, what he selects from it, and how he presents it, constitute the differentia of art. He may falsify or faithfully report, elevate or degrade, eliminate the purest form from nature, or produce a grotesque satire of her most beautiful creations. This intervention of the artist's mind between the object and the figured representation makes him an interpreter; it invests all works of art with some mood, some tone, some suggestion of human thought and emotion. And whether this intervention be voluntary or involuntary matters little. The point to fix on is that the artist's mind cannot be inoperative in the processes of art. The imported element of subjectivity will be definite or vague, according to the intensity of the artist's character, and according to the amount of purpose or conviction which he felt while working; it will be genial or repellent, tender or austere, humane or barbarous, depraving or ennobling, chaste or licentious, sensual or spiritual, according to the bias of his temperament.

Now it is just this intervention of a thinking, feeling subjectivity which makes Flandrin's study of the young man alone upon the rock a painted poem. We may not, while looking at this picture, be quite sure what the meaning of the poem is: different minds, as in the case of musical melody, will be affected by it in divers ways. To me, for instance, the picture suggests resignation, the mystery of fate, the calm of acquiescence. The ocean which surrounds that solitary form, and the distant coast- line, add undoubtedly to an imaginative impression of the sort I have described. These accessories are absent in the photograph of the model, which only suggests the interior of a studio. In so far, therefore, as they contribute to the total effect of Flandrin's picture, the mere model is at a palpable disadvantage. Yet we might transfer the model to a real rock, with the same scene of sea and coast painted behind him for a background; or better, we might place him in position on some spur of Capri's promontories with the Sorrentine headland for background; but in neither case should we obtain the result achieved by Flandrin. A photograph from the model in these circumstances would not influence our mind in the same manner. The beauty of the study might be even greater; the truth to fact, to nature's infinite variety of structure in the living body, would be undoubtedly more striking; the emotion stirred in us might be more pungent, and our interest more vivid; yet something, that indeed which makes the poem, would have disappeared. Instead of being toned to the artist's mood by sympathy with the ideas — vague but deep as melody — which the intervention of his mind imports into the subject, we should dwell upon the vigour of adolescent manhood, we should be curious perhaps to see the youth spring up, we should wonder how his lifted eyes might gaze on us, and what his silent lips might utter.


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