Elizabeth Botten, curator of the exhibition Artists and Their Models, considers a group of reference photographs used by Violet Oakley in the making of the Dante Window.
In popular culture, artists’ models are often mythologized as ethereal and powerful beings: women and men whose languid poses and sensual presence in the studio conjures artistic inspiration. While the idea of the erotic muse is not a total fiction—artists often had affairs and relationships with their models—models might be chosen for their physical type or their location and proximity to an artist’s studio. Artists often use other artists, their children, friends, and even animals as models. And, in truth modeling is not always a tranquil or languorous affair. Staying perfectly still for long stretches, no matter how relaxed the pose, is not easy. Being a good model requires strength, flexibility, and even a bit of acting skill.
The papers of Violet Oakley contain primary sources that reveal some of what she required of her models. She called on her friend, the illustrator Mills Thompson, as she prepared the stained glass Dante Window. (The Smithsonian American Art Museum owns a scale model; the work is in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States.) Draped in cloth resembling Renaissance garb, donning a laurel wreath, and wearing a prosthetic nose, Thompson posed for a series of reference photographs that Oakley used in creating the window which was based on the Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth–century poem The Divine Comedy.
Like the epic poem, the window is divided into three parts with four medallions each: the left panel represents the “Inferno,” (meant to be read from top to bottom), the right panel, “Purgatorio,” (read from the bottom), and the center section, “Paradiso” (also read from the bottom). In this group of 20 photographs, an animated Thompson personifies the character of Dante as he ponders, prays, attempts to ward off beasts, travels through Hell and Purgatory with Virgil, and ascends to Heaven with Beatrice. (Henrietta Cozens, who likely posed as Virgil for the image in medallion two of the "Purgatorio" panel, is not quite as vigorous in her expression.)
Aside from showing live–action studies in composition, these photographs give insight into Oakley’s studio practice. For example, she frequently posed her figures in front of a grid background to aid in scale and proportion when drawing. In some cases, Oakley used wider shots for overall composition, and tighter, portrait–style photographs to better capture Thompson’s facial expressions. Several of the photographs show rough sketches of the window that were in the studio, which, though hard to see, suggest an alternate composition of the medallions.
Violet Oakley’s files for the Dante Window contain handwritten transcripts of The Divine Comedy, sketches, and a lecture by the artist on the poet. But, ultimately, what brings the character of Dante to life is Mills Thompson’s expressions and performance as a model.
Join us for a free gallery talk, June 20 at 4:30 p.m. in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery. This talk will immediately precede Drawing at Dusk!, a Smithsonian American Art Museum program offering the opportunity to sketch from a live model in the Luce Center within the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
- “A Window into the Lives of Artists’ Models,” from Eye Level, the blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Elizabeth Botten is a Reference Specialist at the Archives of American Art.