Naked for the Sake of Art: Audrey Munson, The Supermodel of 1915
I admit it. I made a terrible mistake putting “Republican” in the title of my column last month. Could you choose any better word to dash cold water on a reader’s libido even if it was paired with the magically profitable and compelling duo of “Fifty Shades”?
I hope, however, to make up for my previous misjudgment this month by discussing a topic of timeless allure: a woman who takes her clothes off for the sake of art.
My inspiration for this column is Audrey Munson, the model for numerous artists and sculptors in the early part of the twentieth century. Interpretations of her nude form appear in New York City as Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building, on the Maine Memorial in Central Park, as the Spirit of Commerce on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge, and as Pomona in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. As James Bone writes in his biography of Audrey, The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, “Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.” (Bone, 3) In 1915, at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, she was even more ubiquitous. Seventy-five percent of the statues and murals adorning the fairgrounds were based on modeling sessions with Audrey. “’America’s greatest sculptors are ready to admit that she is the most perfectly formed woman who ever posed in an American studio,’ the San Francisco Chronicle gushed.” (Bone, 110)
James Bone’s book tells the tale of the life of this early-twentieth-century supermodel, but also of the familiar challenges faced by a female muse in a world controlled by men: artists who projected their own visions of perfection on her body, wealthy playboys who collected models like trophies, theater managers who punished actresses for rejecting sexual advances, and unscrupulous film producers who publicized but never paid lavish wages. Audrey’s subjective experience of these adventures and misadventures is captured to a degree in newspaper interviews and memoirs, usually ghost-written by a male author. But after a career as a chorus girl, model and early film star, she spent the second half of her life in a mental institution, receiving only rare visits from family members until she died in 1996. In Bone’s biography, as in the marble likenesses of her body, Audrey is there–yet she is not there. All around New York, we may indeed gaze upon Audrey, but in truth, her eyes are, and have always been, blank and blind.
Still many aspects of her story felt surprisingly relevant today. Sexual politics are as timeless as the appeal of a beautiful body au naturel. There is much to discuss in her life about beauty, power and art, but for brevity’s sake, I’ve chosen two of the aspects of her story that struck me in particular as a female reader: the significance of the moment when an artist first persuades a young beauty to pose nude and the possible reasons for Audrey’s popularity among artists in the 1910s.
The artist’s model has been a stock character in erotic fiction from nineteenth-century tales of Bohemia and Anais Nin to steamy stories in multiple recent editions of Best Women’s Erotica. Sometimes, the model is a woman of experience who enjoys her work, has many lovers and feels no shame. However, the initiation of the innocent has always had particular power in erotica. Seductions often begin with the man convincing a woman to pose for a painting or a photograph in artistic drapery and then, with further coaxing, in the nude. Bone’s biography, although not erotica per se, dwells upon that moment of Audrey’s transformation from respectability to, depending on your perspective, fallen woman or transcendent muse.
Audrey’s modeling career began when she was approached on the street by Felix Benedict Herzog, a photographer who asked to make studies of her face. Her mother Kittie accompanied her to his studio to make sure her daughter’s virtue was not compromised. Kittie had divorced Audrey’s father over ten years before. After running several boardinghouses in Providence, Rhode Island, Kittie and Audrey ended up in Manhattan where Audrey found occasional work in the theater. Herzog took “artistic” photographs, but Audrey was always properly draped in costume and cloth.
It was Isidore Konti, a sculptor from Vienna, who first persuaded Audrey to pose “in the altogether.” Konti was working on a sculpture called Three Graces for the Grand Ballroom of the Astor Hotel, but had encountered sculptor’s block. The very sight of Audrey gave Konti the inspiration to continue—he would use her figure for all three of the Graces. But first he had to convince Audrey to take off her clothes.
“It cost Konti a Herculean effort to convince the stubborn Kittie that her tender teenager was safe in his care. Every day, Audrey would arrive to pose with her mother in tow, and Konti would explain to Kittie why artists did the things they did. There was nothing wrong, he argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’ In those studio sessions, Kittie, as much as Audrey, was being inducted into a new way of life. The life of art.” (Bone, 39-40).
According to Bone’s accounts, artist after artist would be struck at first sight by Audrey’s potential and use her form to produce a masterpiece. Konti introduced Audrey to Adolph Weinman, who immediately asked her to take her clothes off. Still a novice, Audrey stood shyly before him, eyes downcast. Weinman asked her to raise her arms as if she were fixing her hair and made quick sketches of her pose. These sketches later became the sculpture Descending Night—renamed The Setting Sun for the Pan-Pacific Exposition (and pictured at the beginning of this essay).
Bone emphasizes that Audrey insisted she only worked for professional artists and was no “natural” exhibitionist. “She developed a mental trick to help defeat her shame at appearing before a stranger in the altogether. ‘In position, holding a pose while a sculptor or painter worked, I thought of myself only as a model—a mere piece of human flesh,’ she said. ‘The moment the artist dropped his brush or mallet or modeling tool I became the human young woman again, ashamed to have my body seen.’” (Bone, 41-42).
Note, of course, that none of the art works for which she modeled is called “Audrey Munson.” They are named after mythological figures—Three Graces, Venus de Milo, Phryne—or abstractions—Maidenhood, Spirit of Commerce, Mourning Victory, Star Maiden. The erasure of individuality and subjectivity was the price of portraying the nude form in early twentieth-century America.
“Audrey learned the unspoken rules of thumb for posing in the buff. ‘No model posing undraped must ever smile. If she does the representation of her becomes common, disagreeable, offensive,’ she said. Even odder was the widely held belief that motion itself suggested sexuality. Censors allowed static ‘poses plastiques’ in the theater but balked at any moving nudity.” (Bone, 74)
Nevertheless, other details of her story suggest a more complicated dynamic. Rather than a passive object, Audrey was an active advocate for her career. She tirelessly visited studios throughout New York to offer her services. Recommendations from other artists as to her professionalism helped secure more work. She claimed to avoid being entrapped into affairs with the pseudo-artists of Bohemia, best identified by their luxurious studios and expensive clothes. Real artists wore dirty smocks; their workplaces were cold and Spartan. In her interviews and memoirs, Audrey insisted that her work had a higher purpose: “That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue—my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned.” (Bone, 41)
If the classic erotic scene in the studio–with the artist invoking “duty to art” as he charms or bullies his reluctant, maidenly model into disrobing–is not totally accurate in Audrey’s case, what about the reason she was chosen by so many artists as the “It” Girl of the 1910s? The press would have you believe it was for a simple, objective reason: she had the perfect female form, no argument allowed. Syndicated health columnist Dr. Lillian Whitney attributed her popularity to Audrey’s ample bosom. (Bone, 74) In our age of breast implants, Audrey appears rather middling in that regard. As for timeless perfection, would Audrey receive a second glance from photographers and artists in our modern age?
They’d probably say she has to work on her thighs.
In fact, if you examine more than a few of these statues, the figures and faces are not exactly alike. Sometimes the breasts are full, other times they are smaller. Arnold Genthe’s photograph of Audrey above shows a different figure in flesh than in the stone of Three Graces. Might it be that the artist projects his own image of beauty onto the model? That “perfection” is an agreement between male artist and male critic rather than an objective measurement? If so, can we “know” Audrey through a sculptor’s image of her? Or can we only know something of the artist himself, the concrete representation of his fantasies?
Again Audrey’s professionalism is downplayed. She clearly had the talent of posing for long hours day after day, not a discomfort every person is able or willing to endure. The emphasis on the artist’s agency—persuading the woman to disrobe with invocations of duty to high principles, creating the work of art from his vision and skill—also undercuts the fortitude and attitude of the model. The sensibility of early twentieth-century America did not allow for any celebration of Audrey’s professionalism. We will never really know if she had appetite for transgression or “natural” exhibitionism. Audrey herself had to cloak her posing in high-minded abstractions: Beauty, Art and Timeless Immobility.
In conclusion, I am reminded that erotic writing by, for and about women only really came of age at the end of the twentieth century, around the time of Audrey’s death. In modern interpretations of the artist-model dynamic, the subjective desire of the model is finally given a voice—indeed the artist’s gaze can even be a female. Best of all, women eroticists don’t have to be cajoled, convinced or fooled. We create art with our eyes open. That is something to celebrate!