Serving Art: Artist and Model in the 19th-century Russian Art World

Margaret Samu

Magazine issue: 
#1 2015 (46)


Students of the Academy first worked with models during the final stage of their artistic training, only after they had spent years copying from drawings, prints, and plaster casts. Life classes took place every evening for two hours, when fixed artificial lighting could be directed to accentuate the model's musculature.2 Professors took turns supervising the life class, posing the model in an attitude based on a canonical sculpture or painting. The model maintained his pose all week, allowing students to complete a drawing to be submitted for grading on Saturday. Every four months, a pair of models would pose together for two weeks. The best drawings from this session would receive first and second silver medals.

Students in the life class had to learn to adapt the physique of the model before them to meet academic expectations. Like many European academies, the St. Petersburg Academy employed only male models until the late 19th century.3 The difficulty was that well-built models were difficult to find. The Academy held open calls that attracted dozens, even hundreds of applicants, of which only one or two men would be accepted for a trial period; however, even a man with the proper physique might not have the bearing, artistry, or endurance to pose for an hour at a time.

For men of humble origins, working as a model was a secure, steady job. As full-time employees of the Academy of Arts, models received a monthly salary, firewood, and a basement apartment.4 From the 1840s to the 1860s, academic models earned about 17 rubles, 10 kopecks per month. The receipts they signed for their salaries reveal their level of literacy: models who could sign their names would also sign for their colleagues' salaries, using phrases such as "andfor his illitracy signed model Stepan Ilichev [mispelling in the original]".5 Although many art students also came from humble backgrounds, asking a peer to model was simply not done.6

Models were fixtures of the academic community. In addition to modelling, they were responsible for maintaining the life class studios and fuelling the stove in winter. In addition to daily life classes, models were also available to students for independent work.7 During the spring and summer, when students were busy working on exam subjects, models would schedule appointments, posing for a series of biblical figures, ancient gods and heroes over the course of a day. They would visit the exhibitions, congratulating the young men and taking evident pride in their contribution to the artists' success.

The exclusive use of male models created a notable gap in academic training. For instance, in 1818 the exam subject for fourth-level students was a quintessential academic subject, "Ulysses begging the princess Nausicaa for help": Ulysses as a heroic nude surrounded by young women in antique drapery. However, when Academic Council members examined students' preliminary sketches, they determined that the subject was "too difficult, for the painting should consist mainly of female figures, which they cannot draw from life."8 Access to female models was impossible for students in the course of the competition, and therefore the council changed the assigned subject to"Samson betrayed by Delilah to the Philistines", a subject dominated by male figures in which the single female form might be artfully arranged to hide the students' weakness.

Although the Academy did not employ women to pose for life classes until the reforms of 1893-1894, women regularly modelled for portrait and costume classes. They were never fulltime employees like their male counterparts, but were hired by the session. Because they worked on a freelance basis, their wages were two to three times those of men. For example, the Academy expense books from 1869 show the male models earning 50 kopecks for a two- to three-hour sitting, while female models earned up to one ruble 50 kopecks.9 Yet the women's higher wages meant that few artists could afford them; even after reaching the life class, most students used plaster casts from the Academy's collection for female figures.10

If they needed an original pose, students who could not afford a female model would simply use the Academy's full-time male model. Yegor Vasiliev, a professor at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture, however, found a male model unsuitable for a nude preparatory study of a female figure. He complained to his former pupil, Vasily Perov: "I drew the figure of the Mother of God from the model Timofei. But it's all no good... just not right, no sir!... No, not the proportions or the shapes! I have to draw her entirely from a good female figure, sir!"11 The failure of the male form to substitute for a female one drove artists to great lengths to find female models.

Some Russian artists had the opportunity to work from a female model only when they travelled abroad to Rome or Paris, where there was a larger market for professional models. Young artists confronting the female form for the first time found that it posed unexpected challenges. One such artist was Grigory Myasoedov, who wrote from Rome to a friend about his experience: "Currently I'm painting a study from a woman similar to a Magdalene. Sitting in a sorrowful pose, abundant hair, rocks all around. In short, I wanted to feel a woman, as they say, since I've never once painted a female body, I'm painting it life-size and finding that it's harder than painting a man. There are few little details on the body, everything is smooth."12 Artists who were able to travel took advantage of the availability of female models abroad in order to prove their status as professional, cosmopolitan artists.13

Despite frequent complaints that there were no suitable female models in Russia, sources show that 19th-century artists regularly employed women in their private studios.14 Evidence from memoirs, correspondence, literature, and even paintings provides a great deal of information about the women who worked for Russian artists. Like their male counterparts, women who posed generally came from the lower classes. Naturally, a woman displaying her body for a male artist raised moral questions that male models did not. Moreover, writers often play up the moral dubiousness of female models to pique the reader's interest. Maria Kamenskaya, for instance, the daughter of sculptor Fyodor Tolstoy, wrote gossipy sketches about the Academy of Arts community for the journal "Vremya".15 Texts by artists, however, such as Apollon Mokritsky's memoirs, Taras Shevchenko's semi-autobiographical "The Artist", and an unsigned 1894 article in "Peterburgskaya gazeta" devoted to female models, all de-emphasize the potential eroticism of the artist-model encounter to create a more commonplace image of artistic work.

In her sketches Kamenskaya introduces Alexei Venetsianov as one of the first Russian artists with regular access to female models. On his provincial estate lived approximately 70 peasants, 35 of whom were women, who posed for him both clothed and nude.16 The series of approximately eight female nudes he produced from the 1830s to the 1840s progressed from peasant bathers to bacchantes, and finally to a standing nude in a domestic setting, "The Toilette of Diana" (1847, Tretyakov Gallery). Because of female serfs' doubly low status as both women and peasants, even an enlightened landowner such as Venetsianov could ask them to pose nude without transgressing social norms. Nearly ignoring Venetsianov's pastoral genre scenes and peasant portraits, Kamenskaya instead focuses on the artist's paintings of nude women. The only painting she describes in detail is a scene from a banya, or bath-house, apparently his "In the Banya" (1830s, location unknown), which is known today only from an oil sketch in the Tretyakov Gallery. Kamenskaya plausibly suggests that inspiration for the scene came from the peasants' banya on his estate, and that Venetsianov's ownership of serf models was the envy of his Petersburg colleagues.

In St. Petersburg, far from his estate, Venetsianov had to find new models. Although Kamenskaya's claim that he assembled a "considerable harem" in his studio can be dismissed, her explanation of artists' difficulty finding models in St. Petersburg is nonetheless useful: "In Holy Rus' finding a female model is hard. This is not Italy - you can't find a duchess, a miracle of beauty, who would pose out of her love for art. And so the models available to a Russian artist must be strongly supplemented by his imagination, and they more often muddle the artist than help him to produce something good. You won't be able to convince a young, well-built woman, even from the lower classes, to work as a model, and even if you do manage, she won't be serving art for very long; before you can blink, your artist friend will lure her away before your very eyes, and she'll turn from a model into something much more elevated, covering her figure forever with an opaque silk train and a Turkish shawl."17

Where exactly Russian artists could find female models was a difficult question. In the fiction of the period, artists hardly had to look: Odoevsky's protagonist in his story "The Painter" encounters an orphan girl in the street and trains her to model.18 By comparison, Kamenskaya describes Venetsianov going out in the evenings, when "he caught a model somewhere in the street," as if he sought out streetwalkers - a scandalous and probably untrue claim.19 Artists' memoirs and autobiographical works show that they sought models at places of employment of the lowest class. Taras Shevchenko, writing about the 1830s, mentions that a servant girl at the tavern had modelled for his friend, but does not suggest that she did so regularly. 20

Another writer refers to seamstresses in St. Petersburg modelling on the side.21 Later in the century, artists advertised in the newspaper for female models and apparently had no shortage of women applying.22 The hourly rate of 50 kopecks - a full day's wages for a seamstress - for ostensibly easy work would have been very attractive.

Some artists had servants in their homes whose household duties included modelling. In the 1850s, for instance, the Moscow painter Grigory Novakovich painted from his housekeeper: "Dunyasha, his simple and clumsy housekeeper and almost constant model, was transformed under his paintbrush into a charming peasant girl, a Danaё or Venus, a Madonna or Bacchante. He was especially skilled at painting the nude body."23 The housekeeper, model and girlfriend all in one recalls the title character in Chekhov's story "Anyuta," about a young woman who lives with a medical student. First the student studies anatomy from Anyuta's ribs, then "loans" her to his neighbour, an artist working on a painting of Psyche.24 The artist complains, as did real-life artists, that he has to piece together an ideal female figure from a series of unsuitable models. Although Anyuta is a fictional character, the author's close friendships with artists suggests that the story of a young woman providing services and companionship in exchange for food and lodging is entirely believable.

Finding well-built female models was particularly problematic. Academic conventions of the idealized female form made expectations particularly high. According to the "Peterburgskaya gazeta" article, "Torso models with a high bust, without flabby forms, and neither fatty, nor having sinews or protruding bones, are extremely rare."25 In Italy and France, the market for models created a competitive environment in which models had to groom themselves for their task and artists could select models that suited their ideals; Russian artists had to work with what they had. Not only were models' figures often unsatisfactory, but their ignorance of the artistic process also hindered them. Professional models needed a repertoire of poses that they could endow with movement and expression. In order to work over the long term, they needed a proper diet, sleep, and good grooming - all of which few poor women could afford.

Artists could manage models' figure flaws by having them bare only part of the body at a time: women could specialize in modelling the torso, head, legs, or hands.26 The sculptor Ivan Vitaly, for example, wrote that for his lyrical "Venus" (1851, Russian Museum), he employed "many different live models: for it is not possible to find all the elements of beauty in one; so I, according to artists' common practice - using different models and choosing the finest forms from each of them - united them in my imagination and tried to express my idea in the overall composition, in clay."27 One of his models was Yekaterina Lugovskaya, the daughter of an impoverished merchant, whose mother (a former cook) came with her to each modelling session at the Academy.28 Another was a woman named Dasha, whose reputation endured until the end of the century: "This model's beauty was Briullovian, her very proportions and build were pure antique."29 Due to artists' practice of creating composite figures from a number of models, most of the real women who posed for artists remain impossible to trace.

From the 1830s, images of a female model in an artist's studio started to appear in Russian literature and painting. Odoevsky's short story "The Painter" (1839) is the earliest appearance of a female model in Russian literature. Contemporaneous paintings of artists' studios depict analogous scenes. For example, both Vasily Golike's "Self-portrait" (1832, Tretyakov Gallery) and Osip Ponomarenko's "Artist's Studio" (1843, Historical Museum, Moscow) present idealized images of artists' workspaces with models partially draped in white, posing for artists who are painting bathers or other nudes. Along with Odoevsky's fiction and artists' writings, the paintings underscore the notion that an artist's encounter with a female model took place exclusively outside the Academy life class, in the private realm of the studio. Working from a female model, as opposed to an academic male model, signals the artist's professional status.30 Indeed, the scenario of a male artist alone in the studio with a nude or partially draped female model had become a trope of studio scenes across Europe.

Artists who were fortunate enough to employ female models had difficulty keeping them, as women's other work, however menial, was steadier if not more lucrative. The Moscow artist Leonid Pasternak wrote about his experience in Konstantin Korovin's drawing circle in the 1880s: "A marvellous model would pose for us - for beauty of colouring and form I never again met anyone like her - in the spirit of Titian and Veronese. She wasn't pretty, but when she lay down on the white bearskin - first-rate. At that time it was impossible to find nude female models, and even this one (from the nearby tavern), although she was well paid for the sitting, posed two or three times and ran off; she had become 'bored'"31 Laziness and lack of dedication to the job was a stereotype of occasional models. The artist Pavel Fedotov captures the struggle between the artist and his indolent model in a drawing (1848-1849, Russian Museum). As the young woman dozes in her chair, the artist at the easel exhorts her: "Enough of your sleeping! Just sit there nicely for half an hour! Afterwards [you may ask], 'Give me [money] for a bonnet. Give me [money] for a theatre box'. But without a painting, how will I make it?..."32

Despite artists' frustrations, a few models were successful enough to attain a degree of fame in the St. Petersburg art world. The 1894 "Peterburgskaya gazeta" article lists a dozen of them, starting as far back as 1850. The author's favourite is Katya Gorbunova, whose torso was so beautiful that the academician Belyaev made a plaster cast of it for students to study. He also praises a certain Nastya and the "Briullovian" Dasha who posed for Vitaly's "Venus". Beyond these three, the author names nine more who attained less renown, either because they quit modelling to marry, worked exclusively for one artist, suddenly became fat, or simply moved away. Two of them had graduated from high school, and one became an artist herself. Listing most of them by name and associating some with specific artists and works, the author shows that they were well known. These exceptional female models were prized by artists, and no doubt commanded fees to match their status.

As female models began to appear in fiction, the stories did not so much provide facts about their lives, as they reflected the image of models in the public imagination and shaped social attitudes toward their work. In texts from the first part of the 19th century, namely Odoevsky's "The Painter" and Shevchenko's"The Artist", the model is an orphan girl whom the artist meets by chance, who soon plays the role of both muse and mistress.33 As she models for him, the painter falls in love with her and is inspired to new artistic heights. Soon the painter marries her and abandons his serious work for more lucrative subjects to support the family. These texts rehearse a favourite theme in Russian literature about artists from the 1830s to the 1850s: the struggle between creating great art and commercial art. Yet the similarities in their portrayal of the model are significant. The woman is childlike, an innocent waif, and her modelling is a game more than a difficult - or even shameful - job. According to Odoevsky, for example: "He posed her like this and like that; first raised her arm, then lowered it; they say, incidentally, it's necessary to do so for their art!... However it was, he just painted and painted her."34 Both Odoevsky and Shevchenko depict the model as a shallow feminine foil to the fully developed character of the artist who sacrifices a great career for a woman.

From the 1860s onwards, female models in fiction begin to play a more central role in the narrative, suggesting that they had become more visible in the public eye. Examples include Yakov Polonsky's poem "The Model" (1863), Perov's autobiographical story "From Nature" (1881), and Vsevolod Garshin's novella "Nadezhda Nikolaievna" (1885).35 Rather than portraying the model as a child, they deal with the so-called fallen woman, a motif that permeated literature in the second half of the century in works by Nekrasov and Dostoevsky, among others.36 In Polonsky's poem, for example, the narrator is a woman driven to pose by poverty and hunger.37 In the later texts, writers portray prostitutes who are selected by artists to pose for paintings. Yet here they downplay the potential eroticism of the women's work; the job of a model is nothing more than "serving art". Their work has a redemptive aspect: as they pose, the models show themselves to be bright, well-spoken, and deserving of respect. Realist writers, with their concern for redeeming fallen women, portray posing as a step up from prostitution - using the body for non-sexual work on the way to a more respectable job as a copyist, as for example, in Garshin's story. However, both Garshin's and Perov's stories finish with the woman's death, the inevitable ending for a fallen woman in the literature of the period.38

At least one image of an artist's studio from the period conveys similarly unglamourous notions about the modelling process. The model in Illarion Prianishnikov's painting "In the Artist's Studio" (1890, Tretyakov Gallery) warms herself at an iron stove, wearing only slippers and a plaid blanket to cover her body. The artist, kneeling with palette in hand, stokes the stove with wood. The studio is a whitewashed room with a bare wooden floor, simply furnished and filled with items needed for work. The scene conveys cold, discomfort, and perhaps poverty. While Prianishnikov relates nothing about the model's social position, he minimizes any erotic relationship with the artist. Separated by the vertical lines of the black stove, the two figures do not even exchange glances as they focus on warming themselves. The artist not only presents a backstage view of the artist's studio, but also deliberately thwarts any expectation of an erotic encounter. His painting can be read either as an image related to the realist texts of the period, or as a response to cliched, idealized depictions of artists and models in late 19th-century academic painting.

The frequent appearance of female models in painting and literarure from the 1860s onwards suggests that the Russian public had become aware of their role in the art world, and demonstrates the close ties between the artistic and literary circles of the period. Authors of texts about artists and models had artist friends or were themselves either professional or amateur artists. The visibility of female models in literature and art also relates to the increasing prominence of lower-class women in a range of urban professions after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

Women began to pose for life classes at the Academy of Arts after the reforms of 1893-1894. Images suggest that Ilya Repin was a leader in employing female models in his teaching studio: both photographs of his studio and a large collective painting by his students (1898, Russian Academy of Arts Scholarly Research Museum) testify to the centrality of the female model in his teaching. While these pictures are analagous to Venetsianov's watercolours of academic life classes with exclusively male models and students, they illustrate that, in Russia as in the West, by the end of the 19th century the term "model" referred specifically to a female model.

As we have seen, St. Petersburg artists depicted female models in the Academy and private studios using a traditional visual language. For Moscow artists, however, female models became part of the move toward the avant-garde, as seen in Natalia Goncharova's daring paintings of 1908-1909, which she painted while teaching in the private school of Ilya Mashkov and Alexander Mikhailovsky. Female models were introduced to life classes at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture by Valentin Serov in 1897. While the Academy in St. Petersburg tended to retain more control over students' development, professors at the Moscow school emphasized technique, letting students develop their own style. This policy of "non-interference" freed students to experiment with the modernist styles they saw in the new avant-garde art collections being formed in Moscow. Young artists continued these experiments beyond the school in private studios. The canvases of artists such as Goncharova, Mashkov and Larionov from this period show that they favoured the female model over the male. The freedom offered to them by study of the nude female form in an independent studio was an essential part of their development as their work moved from Cezannism to even bolder avant-garde styles.

  1. On models in France and Britain, see Ilaria Bignamini and Martin Postle,"The Artist's Model: Its Role in British Art from Lely to Etty", exh. cat. (Nottingham, 1991); Martin Postle and William Vaughan, "The Artist's Model from Etty to Spencer", exh. cat. (London, 1999); Susan S. Waller,"The Invention of the Model: Artists and Models in Paris, 1830-1870" (Aldershot, England, 2006); Jane Haville Demarais, Martin Postle and William Vaughan, "Model and Supermodel: The Artist's Model in British Art and Culture" (Manchester, 2006). On models in literature, see Marie Lathers,"Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist's Model" (Lincoln, Nebraska and London, 2001, hereinafter, Lathers).
  2. On life classes, see O.V. Mikhailova,"Uchebnyi risunok v Akademii khudozhestv XVIII veka" (Moscow: Academiia khudozhestv, 1951) pp. 29-37, 48-49 (hereinafter, Mikhailova); and F.P. Tolstoi,'Zapiski grafa F.P. Tolstogo, Tovarishcha Prezidenta Imperatorskogo Akademii Khudozhestv', "Russkaya starina 7", nos. 1-6 (Jan-June 1873), pp. 33-34.
  3. The earliest documented models in Russia were Pyotr Semenov and Prokofy Ivanov, who worked for the drawing classes taught in the late 1730s by Georg and Maria-Dorothea Gsell at the Academy of Sciences. Both serfs, their names were recorded when their passports were transferred from their owners to the Academy. See Mikhailova pp. 11, 75 note 3.
  4. N. Ramazanov, 'Akademicheskii naturshchik do 1843 goda' in"Materialy dlya istorii iskusstv v Rossii" (Moscow, 1863), pp. 150-158 (hereinafter, Ramazanov).
  5. RGIA f. 789, op. 19, d. 321, 1840, l. 9 ob.
  6. Ramazanov recalls: "When we swam in the summer we often saw young men who were such models of beauty that we could only regret that these youths were not of low rank, so that an artist could use their figures" Ramazanov, p. 152, note.
  7. Ramazanov, pp. 156-158.
  8. RGIA f. 789, op. 1, ch. 1, d. 2753, l. 1-1 ob.
  9. RGIA f. 789, op. 6, d. 14, l. 6-19.
  10. Tolstoy, p. 35; Apollon Mokritsky, 8 April 1838,'Dnevnik khudozhnika A.N. Mokritskogo", ed. N.L. Priimak (Moscow, 1975).
  11. V.G. Perov, 'Na nature. Fanni pod No. 30', in "Rasskazy khudozhnika", ed. V. Leonov (Moscow, 1960), pp. 26-27 (hereinafter, Perov).
  12. G.G. Myasoedov to Andrei Somov, Dec 1863, in G.G. Myasoedov,"Pis'ma, dokumenty, vospominaniia", ed. V.S. Ogolevets (Moscow, 1972), pp. 31-32.
  13. Margaret Samu,'Exhibiting Westernization: Alexei Venetsianov's Nudes and the Russian Art Market 1820-1850',"Nineteenth-Century Studies" no. 26. (2014).
  14. 'Naturshchitsy',"Peterburgskaya gazeta" 84 (27 March 1894), p. 94 (6 April 1894) (hereinafter,"Naturshchitsy"); 'Konstantin Egorovich Makovsky, "Niva 2" (1879): p. 25.
  15. M.F. Kamenskaya, 'Znakomye. Vospominaniia bylogo',"Vremya 7" (1861); reprinted in Kamenskaya,"Vospominaniia" (Moscow, 1991), pp. 270-307 (hereinafter, Kamenskaya).
  16. Archive of the Kalininskaya Regional Art Gallery, ed. khr. 3, l. 17; quoted in the catalogue "Alexei Gavrilovich Venetsianov, 1780-1847, Exhibition for the 200th Anniversary of His Birth", ed. G.V. Smirnova (Leningrad, 1983), p. 12.
  17. Kamenskaya, p. 302.
  18. Vladimir Odoevsky,'Zhivopisets', "Otechestvennye zapiski 6", no. 3 (1839): pp. 31-42 (hereinafter, Odoevsky).
  19. Kamenskaya, p. 302.
  20. T.G. Shevchenko, "Khudozhnik. Povest'" (Kiev, 1961), p. 27.
  21. "Naturshchitsy".
  22. "Naturshchitsy".
  23. A.N. Andreev,'Davnie vstrechi. XVII. Grigory Isakovich Novakovich', "Russkii arkhiv 7" (1890): pp. 361-362.
  24. A.P. Chekhov,'Anyuta', "Sobranie sochinenii v dvenadtsati tomakh" vol. 4 (Moscow: Pravda, 1985), pp. 108-112.
  25. "Naturshchitsy."
  26. "Naturshchitsy"; Shevchenko, p. 62.
  27. Vitaly to the Minister of the Imperial Court P. V. Volkonsky, 1852, RGIA f. 472, op. 17, d. 115, l. 43, quoted in E.V. Karpova, 'K izucheniiu statui I.P. Vitaly "Venera, snimaiushchaia sandaliu"', in"Russkaya i zapadnoevropeiskaia skul'ptura XVIII-nachala XX veka" (St. Petersburg, 2009), p. 134 (hereinafter, Karpova).
  28. Karpova, pp. 137-141.
  29. "Naturshchitsy".
  30. Lathers, pp. 45-46.
  31. Leonid Pasternak,"Zapisi raznykh let" (Moscow, 1975), p. 35; in English,"The Memoirs of Leonid Pasternak", trans. Jennifer Bradshaw (London, 1982), p. 48.
  32. Fedotov gave the artist his own features, suggesting that the scene was one he had experienced first hand."Pavel Fedotov. Katalog", ed. M.N. Shumova (St. Petersburg, 1993), p- 19433 The female model first appears in French literature in 1831, in Honore de Balzac's novel
  33. "Le Chef-d'ceuvre inconnu". See also Lathers, pp. 86-108.
  34. Odoevsky, p. 36.
  35. Ya.P. Polonsky, 'Naturshchitsa',"Sovremennik 98" (September-October 1863): pp. 561-562, reprinted in Ya.P. Polonsky, "Polnoe sobranie sochineniia v piati tomakh" vol. 2 (St. Petersburg, 1896), pp. 282-83.; Perov; and V.M. Garshin, 'Nadezhda Nikolaievna, in "Russkaia mysl'" 2-3 (1885); reprinted in V.M. Garshin, "Rasskazy" (Leningrad, 1978), pp. 210-269.
  36. George Siegel,'The Fallen Woman in Russian Literature', "Harvard Slavic Studies 5" (1970): p. 87.
  37. Polonsky himself was an amateur artist who wrote two other poems on artists' models, both in a more romantic style:'Frina' (undated), reprinted in Polonsky, 1896, p. 362; and'Naturshchitse', "Artist. Zhurnal iziashchnykh iskusstv i literatury 34" (February 1894): p. 117.
  38. Fanni's corpse serves as the model for Perov's painting "The Drowned Woman" (1867, Tretyakov Gallery).





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