Degas and His Models

Degas and His Models September 1, 2017

The Paris Review published an excerpt from Jeff Nagy’s forthcoming book on Degas and His Model. Written by one Alice Michel, and purportedly based on a first-person account from one of the painter’s models, named Pauline, the account was first published in 1919 in Mercure de France.

Nagy thinks the account genuine, though he can’t identify Pauline and surmises that “Alice Michel” is a pen name for the radical novelist Rachilde.

It’s not a flattering portrait of the artist. He is not the “elegant gentleman” nor the cultivated wit. Rather: “Michel’s Degas is an almost systematic inversion of the reverent testimonials current in the French press in the years after the artist’s death in 1917. Degas, as seen by the model Pauline, is no stoic devotee of the Muses but a curmudgeon subject to sudden bouts of theatrical self-pity, always on the verge of collapsing into melancholy ruminations over his failing sight, his oncoming death. The artist famous for his deft public quips becomes, in private, a mealymouthed, repetitious prattler, retailing twenty-year-old anecdotes for the two-hundredth time. . . .This Degas is not only tedious company but a volatile and occasionally violent taskmaster, liable to punch Pauline in the back or threaten her with a hammer when the session isn’t going as well as the artist would like, and perfectly capable of firing her for reading a book or—virulently anti-Semitic as he was—posing for a Jew.”

And the portrait of the model’s life is pretty grim: “if you posed for Degas, conditions were perhaps notably worse. He paid poorly, at a rate of five francs a session, the same amount a model working two decades earlier could have expected. The atelier was cold and perpetually filthy, and, perversely for a man who spent so much of his life depicting bathing women, models were not permitted to wash themselves. And Degas had a mania for strenuous poses that left the women who assumed them cramped and numb. . . . much of Pauline’s energy went into the affective labor of managing Degas’s mood swings, a delicate task that required her to show interest in the artist without him becoming suspicious that she might be having anything like an idea of her own.”

It’s hardly news that artists can be petty monsters. But, if genuine, the memoir gives a rare close-up of one artist’s monstrosities.

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