A Brief History of Professional Life Models in France
& Personal Point of View
By Maria Clark
José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, Studio in Paris (1880).
It is clear that the Italian Renaissance is essential in the history of the nude, the resurgence in Antique, and also about the place of the life model in history of art.
In France it is the emergence of the Academies which actually created our profession. Especially from the establishment of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris in the 17th century (century during which was also created the Academy of France in Rome - Villa Medicis). But the 19th century was specially flourishing for our profession, because of the abundant academies in Paris. The models then were certainly a distinct part of there own prolerarian socialclass. (Immigrant Italian models were also very successful at that time, they posed individually and also with their families, and the business passed often from father to son - mostly men worked as life models at that time., including many French professionals.)
At the turn of the 20th century, and especially in the 1920s in Montparnasse (Paris), appears another sort of model: the non-professional who poses rather for a particular painter (and not for academies), and whose life is often mingled with the life of the artist. Kiki de Montparnasse is one of these figures (She is, I think, the historical model the most quoted in our profession). These women often posed for men, and were considered as «loose moral» women. In the artistic works, they no longer represent allegories, but often themselves for what they were. But many professional models still worked, at the Academy de la Grande Chaumiere for instance (created in 1904), but also in other academys among which the Academy Jullian (created in 1857).
This tradition of flighty woman posing occasionally, is quite fixed I think in the collective imagination of our society, and this is why our profession is often seen as a kind of student or temp job, preferably for females, with all the taboos that go with it. Yet there are still professionals, males and females, who pose commonly between 25 and 35 hours per week (myself included). Modelling is considered a profession by those who have chosen it, and as such it deserves a status and respect. This is the work we are conducting within our collective, La Coordination des modèles d’art, of which I am part.
Most of the models are quite conscious of being part of a historical tradition. Even if they do not know all about it, it is there, it's our context and the context of those who draw in the classes. Some models have a pose repertoire, which is based on ancient paintings and antique sculptures. I’d like to point that out, because people usually don’t know that life models mostly choose there own poses (in collaboration with the teacher of course, and his teaching method) - The model is not handled or strictly directed anymore by the teacher as was the custom in past centuries.
Other models, like me, are rather at ease in the improvisation of the moment, not having any repertoire or preconceived ideas. Although motivated by art history, I specifically lay claim for a contemporary life model "active, author and performing". I’m fully aware of being part of a tradition, but I find sometimes a bit outdated and heavy to carry it. So, I appreciate the change of course that occured with Auguste Rodin, among others, seeking natural poses, and consequently asking his models not to be static.
In the 20th century, the history of the nude has an amazing evolution, even if from 1950 the profession gradually disappeared, but not completely. The proof? We are here!
So nowadays, a wide spectrum of poses are possible. Academics, naked or with costumes, poses in movement, also what I call "performative" poses. Most certainly, I am looking for variety, posing as though a Greek statue, or a drawing by Degas, for movement, or using my artistic background. Many of us come from artistic worlds, such as dance, theater or visual arts. But not only. We gladly offer some of the most personal poses we can, in our own style, fond of new experiences, experimentations, and some teachers specifically call upon us because of this creativity. This new energy of the 21th century gives a second wind to life model history and gets us out of the disuse we seem to have fallen into somewhat in these last recent decades.
Maria Clark, Life Model & Visual Artist
Paris, the 29th of July 2014