When I was little and I read stories for young readers, the stories frequently emphasized that their characters were going on an adventure. This seemed very exciting, and I hoped that I too would get to go on an adventure someday. When I got older, I did not see any adventures around me, and I was disappointed. But when I got a little older than that, I realized that having an adventure is a matter of perspective. If you recognize what you’re doing as an adventure, you will tend to find that life is all adventures.
I’d like to tell you about an adventure along these lines that I wandered into last year. It’s been at the back of my mind to tell it, and it involves extraordinary generosity on the part of somebody else, so it needs telling. Here’s what happened.
Spring Street Studio is my usual life drawing workshop. It’s a basement room in Soho with a model stand surrounded by chairs and tables. The walls are lined with bookcases. Often there are papers scattered about, abandoned sketches or photocopies of artwork. One day I found such a sheet of paper, a color copy of a painting. Glancing at it, I saw that it was a fabulous painting of Leah, my favorite model.
I love to see art that other artists make working with models I know, and in this case, I felt a very particular sting - the sting of seeing work better than yours based on your model. But I didn’t recognize the hand. Whose was this? I picked up the sheet and studied it - and realized that it was not a painting of Leah at all. The model had a similar coloring and sense of pose. She had big breasts shaped like Leah’s, and her belly folded when she sat the same way Leah’s folds. But this model had a longer back and sharper features - she was somebody else. In fact, the painting wasn’t even contemporary. It looked like an academic French painting from the early to mid-19th century. Who painted this?
Like a magpie, I made off with the sheet of paper. I didn’t know how to identify the work, but I did have an even more magpie idea: why not make off with the painting itself? That is, restage it. It was a Leah kind of a pose. The artist was most likely dead. Why not steal his composition and paint my own version with Leah? I filed it under next-few-ideas-to-execute - then suddenly I found out whose painting it was.
Romanticizing the past is nothing new. Rome has been the eternal city for a very long time. Between about 1800 and 1850, young French painters flocked to Italy to soak up classical art. And not only classical art, but the landscapes which formed the backdrops of its creation. Outside the city, painters made nearly mystical pilgrimages to sketch hills and trees and ruins, blue skies and afternoon clouds. A genre of French painting sprang up: beautiful Italian landscapes painted on little canvases set up on folding travel-easels, painted in a few hours on day trips to the countryside. Decades before the Impressionists arrived, students of the Academy were already making swift records of the fleeting moods of weather, light, and land.
Near the end of the previous century, David had imposed a stern neoclassical ideal on French painting. A single generation later, his student Ingres was already remodeling that ideal, his painting slipping into a lifelong erotic reverie of proliferating nudes and fluid, elongated lines. David’s sensibility was well suited to a national style of painting. He survived the factionalism of his day, emerging as a favorite of successive revolutionary forces and then of Napoleon. Ingres, so much more idiosyncratic and personal in his work, was a more awkward fit with his national role. He suffered a hot-and-cold relationship with the French art world, acknowledged as a leading artist of the State, but never entirely admired. In 1834, he retreated in a snit to Italy to direct the Académie de France à Rome. The flow of young French painters with their classical aspirations and portable easels washed up on the shores of his influence, beholding the spectacle of his perpetually in-progress Venus Anadyomene on their way out to take in the tumbled columns and the greenery.
She instructed them in the director’s strangely retro vision for contemporary classicism - body lengthened, contrapposto exaggerated - Greco-Roman to be sure, but with a French sexiness: a daringly affectionate nod to the vanished entitlements of the ancien régime, a recapitulation of the middle class fantasy of aristocrats engaged in baroque sexual games.
In 1838, one of Ingres’s students followed him from France to the Villa Medici, and in 1840, a second, his best friend, followed. German-born Henri Lehmann was melancholy, even depressive. His inclinations in his own art at the time were timid, his ambition to become worthy of the tradition his training entrusted to him. His ami, the French Théodore Chassériau, was more high-spirited, an adventurer who, as Lehmann wrote to fellow intellectual (and probably also lover) the comtesse d’Agoult, “on the third day after his arrival in Rome, drew the portrait of a woman, whom in my heart I had coveted for years as the most desirable of models.” Chassériau was that kind of a best friend.
The two of them were largely inseparable during the late summer and autumn of 1840. During their time apart, Lehmann did finally get that model to sit for him, describing her in another letter to the comtesse as one of the “four most beautiful girls that you could have as a model in Rome.” It’s not clear exactly who this model is, but his description suggests she’s a professional model and famous among artists. By resemblance to other work, this makes it as likely as not that she’s Marietta, who sat for Danish artist Constantin Hansen in 1839, and for French art titan Camille Corot in 1843:
I’d like to think it’s Marietta, anyway. I think models get the short end of the stick, art historically speaking, and I am always happy when the name and works of one can be dragged back from the maw of forgetfulness and erasure.
Lehmann used his sessions with this overpoweringly beautiful model, Marietta or not, to flesh out a painting idea he was mulling over. The painting started with these lines from Victor Hugo’s 1831 poem Les Feuilles d'automne:
There, pensive willows that weep on the shore,
And, like an indolent and naive bather,
Allow the ends of their tresses to soak in the water.
Lehmann translated this image into a group of nude women on the forested bank of a river - the central figure taking her pose from the Venus Anadyomene, and the others grouped around her, out-languiding each other. One of his first steps in producing the piece was figuring out the right pose for each langorous nude river-lady. That’s what the painting I saw at Spring Street was. It was a Lehmann study of maybe-Marietta (clearly the Leah of Rome in the late 1830’s) in preparation for a bigger, fancier painting.
Usually Lehmann made preparatory sketches until he reached a design that satisfied him. Then he would transfer this design to the canvas using the precision techniques of squaring or tracing. He didn’t just do this for the big paintings. He did it for little paintings of the size and ambition of the Study of a Female Nude as well. But infrared reflectography of this painting reveals no evidence of such a method of preparation. This absence tells us something about the painting. It was probably done in a single sitting, maybe three hours or five, with the model present. It’s a live painting.
I am a careful and methodical painter myself, and I use squaring to transfer designs to the canvas before I begin. So I know what it means when you ditch this technique, because I’ve been there. It means that your subject inspires you enough to give in to trust - trust in your subject, trust in yourself - to work on the high wire, without a net: the painting may fail, but if it does not, if it succeeds, then it will pulse with life, the life of having been painted in a series of irreversible choices, each choice awake, vivid, true. To regularly paint over a squared design, and then to choose to paint like this, is to commit to inspiration or death in the work, and nothing between. There is no more vivid testimony to what maybe-Marietta inspired in Lehmann. She inspired him to be better than himself. That’s what muses do.
There is lettering underneath the tall, beautiful ass of maybe-Marietta. Like Marietta’s own presence in the painting, it may or may not really be there. It seems to read “À Chas” - “To Chas.” If that’s what it says, it would appear to be inscribed by Lehmann to his best friend Chassériau. It would suggest Lehmann assigned the painting as a gift, a gift recalling a moment in the friendship of two creative young men, sharing an adventure together in a foreign land, both of them drunk on talent and prone to intense emotions and sentiments, chasing after the same women - a summertime gift.
But it never made it to Chassériau.
When Lehmann had arrived in Rome, he’d lined up a prestigious gig - a portrait of the wife of the French ambassador to the Holy See. And he was working on securing another commission, a portrait of the famously pious and controversial Abbé Lacordaire. At the time he was painting his Study of a Female Nude, the Lacordaire job had progressed to that stressful and ambiguous point where the client has indicated that the answer is yes, but never in so many words. Nothing is in writing, no money has changed hands, nobody has committed to anything. So you, the artist, just have to smooth your way through a few more days, and if everyone keeps having a good time at these afternoon get-togethers, soon enough a letter will be sent round to establish dates for the sittings, and all concerned will act as if of course it was always understood the commission would take place…
Anyway, Chassériau stole both jobs, the ambassador’s wife and the Abbé. End of friendship; gift rescinded. Ingres had had about enough of Chassériau’s bullshit by then too, and cut him off.
How do I know all of this? Because of the way I found out whose painting that was in the color copy at Spring Street. I was flipping, as one does, through the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, volume 70, no. 3, winter 2013, and, astonishingly, came across a picture of the same obscure painting. It was part of an article on those landscapes the French art students were busy painting in Italy - it turned out the Met owned a lot of the landscapes, and also that mesmerizing Study of a Female Nude that wasn’t Leah after all. Here’s the cover of the article:
I don’t know how you do things, but here’s how I do things. If I find something interesting like this, and I have more questions, and the writer isn’t dead, then I’ll try to get in touch with him or her, and ask what I want to ask. In this instance, I wanted to learn more about the history of the painting, so I emailed the Met and asked if I could get in touch with the guy who wrote the article - one Asher Ethan Miller, assistant research curator, European paintings department. Lo and behold, he got back to me.
Over the phone, he sketched out the story of the painting, setting it not only into its historical context, but its personal context for him. He’s a little bit in love with this particular painting, and its tiny little perch in the tumultuous emergence of modern art. He’s in love with its subject, and its paint, and its canvas, and the story it may or may not contain. He’s in love with the letters between Lehmann and the comtesse. He wants that ambiguous inscription to read “À Chas” - if it reads “À Chas,” then the copious correspondence of everyone involved nails down the rest: which afternoon the model came by, which afternoon Chassériau dropped in on Lacordaire and guiled away the portrait commission, what day Lehmann meant to give his precious gift to his friend and what day he found out the truth… and if the inscription does not read “À Chas,” well, all these things happened, but they don’t make such a good story with a little painting for a prize. Therefore Asher Ethan Miller has sat down, as others have before him, with Study of a Female Nude or its infrared reflectograms, under a magnifying glass or a microscope, puzzling out the tiny, sloppily written letters that do or do not loop together to form “À Chas.”
Miller is the extraordinarily generous individual I mentioned at the start. His generosity is the generosity of the scholar-enthusiast, who wishes above all to share his excitement in his subject. Such enthusiasts of esoteric, unknown, beautiful things can be found everywhere, and wait only on the passerby who shows an interest, to offer everything they have collected and safeguarded. Perhaps I am such an enthusiast myself; if not, I ought to be. It is a good and pure way to love and to live.
Not long after our call, I found myself at the Met, invited to go over the records of the painting. Perhaps you’ve been to the Met, and strolled its majestic halls and rooms, in awe at this or that part of the collection. It turns out that this nearly universal mode of appreciating the Met is much like reading only the even-numbered pages in a book. There is at least one more Met in the same building as the public one. It is a network of offices, hallways, and rooms in which the scholarly staff goes about its quiet business. This space is not separate from the space you and I know. It is interleaved with it: it constitutes the odd-numbered pages. It is right there in plain view, accessed by subdued and handleless doors you will never notice if you are not looking, and cannot open without official assistance.
A colleague of Miller’s ushered me through the looking glass, and I found myself in a tall, simple room dominated by a long wooden study table. Desks on the periphery held antiquated computers, a bulletin board displayed several notices, and one side was devoted to wire mesh racks, on which were hung for storage some minor, you know, masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Baroque. A folder was pulled from a file cabinet for me. Inside of this folder were hundreds of pages of information relating to Study of a Female Nude. One such folder exists for every item in the Met’s vast collection. I couldn’t photocopy any pages, but I could transcribe whatever I liked onto my laptop. So I sat at the wooden table for some hours, grateful once again for my desultory high school French, reading everything, from the laments of Lehmann about his crappy finances (June 4, 1839: “What a misfortune to be poor when one is an artist at heart.”)(true) down to the modern-day logistics which led to Lehmann’s painting winding up at the Met, grouped with a world-class collection of 19th century academic French landscape studies of Italy. This nude is not really a 19th century academic French landscape study of Italy, in any way at all, but it tends to get lumped in with them on account of time, place, style, and some dabs of dark green paint in the background.
A few weeks later, I visited the Met one last time in connection with this adventure, and walked the galleries with Asher Ethan Miller himself. He is a shy and well-dressed man, on the young side of middle age and sturdy of build, with spectacles and sandy hair and a quiet voice. He is plainly uncomfortable discussing anything with a stranger but the artwork itself. This he rhapsodizes about with great fervor, and great fidelity to responsible scholarship - much more responsible, I’m afraid, than the soap opera I am spinning here. He demonstrated a dimension of appreciation of the Met which had generally occurred to me, but which I had never contemplated in a clear and specific way. Starting with the Lehmann, he led me from painting to painting, across dozens of paintings, tying elements of each to the next, drawing a map of influence, of common sensibility, of dialogue and progression, of analogy and accidental and purposeful similarity, so that as he skillfully pulled the ropes, it was as if the great and complex tent of the nineteenth century before Impressionism rose again from the ground and took shape before my eyes. The awesome, globe-spanning virtue of the Met is that the relevant paintings were all there, all within a few rooms of one another, on display and ready to unfold their stories.
I got down to work with Leah. We were painting together each week anyway, and we took a break from our other projects to paint this one. I started with a preparatory sketch; I wanted to compare what Leah’s body naturally did, with what Lehmann depicted maybe-Marietta doing. At this point, I realized something that should have been obvious: you learn a masterwork from the inside by copying it.
Here’s my sketch alongside the Lehmann painting:
right: Lehmann, Study of a Female Nude
If you compare it with the original, a few interesting points emerge. Leah’s head looks enormous compared with maybe-Marietta’s, and her arm looks very long. I happen to know that I got Leah’s proportions right, which means that Lehmann’s figure is something like nine heads tall - unrealistic superhero proportions. Stated another way, Lehmann’s figure’s head and limbs are normally sized, and her spine is unnaturally long.
Another observation about the spine: Leah’s lower spine curves backward when she sits in the Lehmann pose. Maybe-Marietta’s does not. Leah’s back bows out and to the left, while maybe-Marietta’s rises straight up. I pondered this difference at length, and ultimately realized I was seeing the same curve, with one key difference: Lehmann rotated his entire depiction clockwise. For whatever reason, the straight rise of the spine was tremendously important to him. So in my squared underdrawing for the painting, I made the same rotation. In doing that, I ran into the same problem Lehmann ran into - I lost track of where the figure’s foot belonged. You can see my erasure here:
And you can see it in Lehmann. It turns out the foot is the one spot where you lose what you’re doing when you rotate this pose. In a 2009 article about the painting, Miller wrote:
“The canvas was larger when Lehmann first painted it: the left tacking edge is original, but the right and bottom edges are fully painted, indicating that they were cut down, while the top edge barely extends around the stretcher member. Other evidence that the canvas was cut down is the model's truncated foot at lower right.”
- Asher Ethan Miller,
A Study by Henri Lehmann for his Femmes près de l'eau, Master Drawings, Vol. 47, No. 4, 2009
It’s truncated because he fucked it up. The uncertainty about where her artificially-rotated leg stops is visible in the final painting in no fewer than four attempts at placing it, and it was probably more of a mess before he trimmed a few inches off the right side of the canvas. I’d wager he left the leg unpainted in his painting not only because it worked, but because the waist was the last juncture on her body where he could stop without awkwardly calling attention to the never-resolved problem with the foot.
Following Miller’s note that the undercoat was sienna, I placed a raw sienna undercoat on my canvas:
And I got to work with Leah, painting my own Lehmann. For the painting, I asked Leah to hold the more difficult head position maybe-Marietta held.
As I painted, I began to understand the strange distortions in Lehmann’s figure. Consider another painting:
Notice the accentuated line of the back, the simplified forms, the three-quarters light which glows upon the figure, giving her strong, drawing-like outlines. Notice the pastoral wooded scene which rounds out the composition. This is an 1807 painting, Half-figure of a Bather, by Lehmann’s teacher, Ingres. It is under the strange hand of Ingres that the female figure softens and becomes supple, lengthening to a dream-like eternity of back; it is in Ingres that we find the calligraphic stroke of the spine, the thick dark hair, the glowing skin, and the unending show/don’t-show tease of the half-hidden face and breast, which makes the slight rear view so natural in his work.
The oddities in the Lehmann painting are nothing more than the adoption of the tics of the instructor in the art of the pupil. Most pivotally so, perhaps, are the broad smooth cheek, and the dark piercing eye. In their Ingrism, they tell us that Lehmann’s vision at this early point in his development was so profoundly shaped by Ingres that when he went looking for beauty, and found it, he saw it through his master’s eye.
Lehmann the Man
My adventure with Lehmann started with a monofocal interest in the startling resemblance of the single painting to Leah. But it expanded over time because things are usually very interesting if you follow where they go. I hope I’ve shared the fascinations of Lehmann the artist and Lehmann the melodrama character. But there is another Lehmann who speaks most to me, Lehmann the man, and it is in relation to this final Lehmann that I ultimately did my work on the painting. Why restage an old painting? Well for one thing it was easy. But as an artist, it was this - the implication of Lehmann the man I saw in the painting, and unfolded in the research - this was the Lehmann I wanted to converse with. Art lets us speak to the dead; or rather, it lends a kind of ongoing life to the voice of those who passed away long ago.
Who is Lehmann the man, at least as I understand him? Consider for a moment Lehmann’s portrait of the comtesse d’Agoult’s primary lover, Franz Liszt (the comtesse was a famous author and knew everybody).
This is quite different from the Study of a Female Nude. It’s more hard-edged and glossy and decisive. It is a paradoxically sharp expression of a soft thought; the soft thought is Romantic melancholia. The sensitive hand, the hunched back, the half-shadowed face, expressive mouth, heroically flared nostril, haunted eye, and furrowed brow - all are marks of the torment of the awakened mind, as conceived by the Romantics. Lehmann ascribes these markers to Liszt, playing up Liszt’s artistic genius. But, of course, he is depicting himself, as artists tend to do. In a letter dated September 19, 1840, he writes, “I absolutely cannot take art seriously. I have read things about it so fictitious as to be absurd… items of genuine human interest quickly lead me back down false paths.”
I find this very moving because I share these same doubts. I wake up thinking about art, I think about art all day long, and I go to bed thinking about art. But I often have trouble taking it seriously. It seems insipid and futile - certainly beneath the dignity of anyone with any self-respect. What does it amount to? We argue about it, look at it, write big fancy words about it, and assign limitless depths to its meaning. But in fact it is stupid pictures on cloth, boring and of little use to anyone.
I understand that my flashes of indifference to art are symptomatic of a deeper indifference, a sense of the entire Earth as a stark and nasty theater-set, large enough to support the illusion of weather as it turns around its single large stage lamp; and beyond the Earth, the universe itself as a cold and listless region, unanswerable in its lack of purpose, true motion, or hope.
These are not healthy thoughts. They tend to tie a weight to the hand so heavy that the hand can scarcely grasp the brush and make the mark. Therefore I do fight them. I have fought them for years, and largely banished them. But they murmur beyond the edge of things, and can sometimes be glimpsed through a gap in the drapes. I have a, ha ha ha, series of paintings I am working on which confronts the problem square. But I am also attracted to Lehmann’s sense of disgust with art, a disgust which bleeds before he can stop it into a general contempt for humanity.
What is so attractive about this? For one thing I identify with it. And for another, he doesn’t let it stop him. Suffering from his doubts, he goes on. He makes things. He wishes to croak out a final “no,” but instead resolves to say “yes.” So when I paint my version of his painting, I am saying back to him, “I hear the no, and I say yes too.”
Lehmann sometimes found consolation, as many do, in favorite authors. In the same 1840 letter, he writes, “Victor Hugo, with the strong conviction and beautiful eloquence of his [writing], revives me a bit, and to him I owe that slight effervescence that still raises my spirits.”
Let me refresh your memory of Victor Hugo with an extended excerpt from a dream he transcribed on November 14, 1842. It is not the writing Lehmann was speaking about. But it makes the point.
“I was at home, but in a home which is not my own, and which I do not know. There were several large reception-rooms, very handsome, and brilliantly lighted. It was evening - a summer evening. I was in one of these rooms, near a table, with some friends, who were my friends in the dream, but not one of whom I know in waking life. A lively conversation was going on, accompanied by shouts of laughter. The windows were all wide open. Suddenly I hear a noise behind me. I turn round, and I see coming towards me, amid a group of strangers, the Duke of Orleans.
“…The prince and I sat down near the window, which looked out upon a splendid prospect. It was the interior of a city. In my dream I perfectly recognized this city, but in reality it was a place I have never seen.
“Underneath the window stretched for a long distance between two dark blocks of buildings a broad stream, made resplendent in parts by the light of the moon. At the far end, in the mist, towered the two pointed and enormous steeples of a strange sort of cathedral; on the left, very near to the window, the eye looked in vain down a little dark alley…
“The sky was of a tender blue and a lovely softness. In one place some trees, barely visible, were wafted in a genial wind. The stream rippled gently. The whole scene had an indescribable air of calm. It seemed as though in this spot one could penetrate into the very soul of things. I called the attention of the prince to the fineness of the night, and I distinctly remember that I said these words to him: ‘You are a prince; you will be taught to admire human politics; learn also to admire Nature.’
“As I was speaking to the Duke of Orleans I felt that my nose began to bleed… The blood which I felt streaming down my mouth and cheeks was very dark and thick… At length I turned to M. Blanqui and said, “You are a doctor; stop this bleeding, and tell me what it means.” …I continued to converse with the prince, and the blood continued to flow.”
- Victor Hugo,
pp. 49-51, Things Seen and Essays, Wildside Press, The Works of Victor Hugo, Volume 14
This passage has a number of qualities which bear upon the question of what Lehmann saw in Hugo. Note, first, how full of life Hugo is, how he brims with it. This is not only a detailed world finely observed, but one utterly invented inside the man. Being a description of a dream, it consists more profoundly than other texts in his own substance. One senses in it the larger-than-life quality which Hugo himself had. He is a city and its surrounding countryside. The scale of his life is greater than that of other men, his colors brighter, his thoughts more insightful, his emotions nobler. And yet he never takes leave of a relaxed and brotherly empathy. You understand in the passage that Hugo does not see himself as larger than other men. He sees all men at his grand scale, and if they have lost the knack for spotting it too - he can remind them, with a little helpful advice.
But he is not without his shadow. He so overflows with life that he cannot contain it. He bleeds terribly, blood covering his face. No doctor can help him. He perseveres, carrying on regardless, his mighty organism replenishing as swiftly as it sloughs off.
It is this ferocious, all-too-human vitality which revives Lehmann from his torpor, like an electric shock to the sciatic nerve. Lehmann, in the depths of his melancholy, is only the shadow. He is all nosebleed and no dream city. He is empty and dull; there are no details in him. To become complete again, he turns to Hugo to be reminded of the rest of life.
He writes “in my heart I had coveted [maybe-Marietta] for years as the most desirable of models” - but from shyness, from lassitude, from inertia, he did nothing. It took the bristling initiative of a Chassériau, the wild acquisitiveness of a Hugo, to prompt Lehmann into action.
For my part, I like Chassériau very much. I think his awkwardly-drawn Toilet of Esther is a sexier take on the Venus Anadyomene than either Ingres or Lehmann ever produced.
But I also like Lehmann, and I like Hugo. I am all of them, and none of them. I have Chassériau’s lust but I lack his animal impulsiveness and will to dominance. I am afflicted with Lehmann’s sense of the curse of mere being, but I am not eclipsed by it. I am not so livid as Hugo. I can see what might save a stranger, or think I do, but I would not any longer grab him by the shoulders and roar salvation in his face. I tried that, and it didn’t work.
Each of these men had a will to greatness, which he fulfilled or failed to fulfill in the measure of his own capacity. I too have this will to greatness, but whether anything will come of it, I can never know. Increasingly I measure it in terms of what I can give away, and so the ambition consists in making fine things to pass along. This may not be much of a measure, but it’s a work in progress, and has the virtue, at long last, of making the process nearly as pleasing as the goal.
Here is how my restaging of Lehmann’s painting finished up.
I learned in it what I could from Lehmann, and from Ingres too, and from maybe-Marietta, and from Leah; the eye of each of us stares back from the painting, although only mine and Leah’s are living now.