Oscar Wilde: London Models

Apart from his famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890 & 1891), Oscar Wilde published several other lesser known and shorter pieces either about the visual arts or with strong visual themes. One of these, “London Models” first appeared in the January 1889 edition of English Illustrated Magazine. I include screen captures of the original article at the end of this post.

It’s a little gem of an essay: perceptive, funny, and interesting. First and foremost, Wilde creates a taxonomy of London models, a list of  types and stereotypes, of predictable generalizations sharpened by surprising details. We read, for example, that the Italian model “eats garlic, but then he can stand like a fawn and crouch like a leopard, so he is forgiven.” And we discover that “Oriental models” are partly valued, as we might have guessed, for their exoticism (for their “lovely costumes”) but also for something more mundane and practical. They’re really good at staying still. The piece surely reflects many of the conversations Wilde would have had with artist friends, and is full of little bits of information that indicate his familiarity with the late-Victorian London art scene. Want to know something about models’ pay and about the conditions of their employment? Wilde will tell you.

As the essay progresses, Wilde develops an argument about the model’s relationship to modernity. Using a critical framework that recalls Baudelaire’s much more famous essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Wilde sees the model as inevitably symptomatic of the current age (“de nôtre siecle“) and thus ill-suited to so-called “historical pictures.” In this, he echoes Baudelaire’s preferences, but his focus on circus performers updates the modern themes mentioned by the French author. On one level, the subject allows Wilde to distinguish between the self-conscious professional model and the easy physicality of the trained athlete; on another, it connects Wilde’s thinking to more recent aesthetic tendencies–to Edmond de Goncourt’s’ novel Les Frères Zemganno (1879) and, by implication, to artists like Cheret, Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec, each of whom had recently treated circus themes.

It might also make us think of Seurat, whose Les Poseurs (1888) had just been painted and who was beginning to explore the circus in his art. (This would culminate in La Cirque of 1891.) Les Poseurs, as it happens, features three women (or just one posed three times?) modeling “for the figure” rather than “for costume.” The central poser’s distinctive features nicely substantiates Wilde’s point about the way the model can embody modern life. Even an Athenian robe cannot disguise “the face of Brompton.” Or, for that matter, the face of contemporary Paris.

Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most famous of all circus painters, would eventually make his own pictures of Oscar Wilde, and we should recall that the author was also something of a professional poser (or poseur), even though his soft hands would, no doubt, have shown that he was not part of that “class of people whose sole profession is to pose.” (The English model, we learn, has “course and red hands”–that is to say, a worker’s hands.) Wilde famously promoted a philosophy of art that stressed posing, self-fashioning, and the importance of surface appearances. For this reason, the subject of this essay suits him peculiarly well. The “models” in the title of “London Models” can be read as either noun or verb, and the second sense expands to include all Londoners, Wilde included.

The illustrations that accompanied the essay suggest a further connection between Wilde and posing or modeling. They were based on drawings provided by the American artist, Harper Pennington. Although I don’t think the circumstances surrounding this collaboration are recorded, we do know that Pennington made a full-length portrait of the author sometime during the first half of the 1880s. I would speculate that this experience of sitting (well, standing) for Pennington must have informed Wilde’s later writing, and not just “London Models” but also the second chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Dorian poses for his portrait.

Wilde, then, had already been one of Pennington’s London models, albeit one who paid for the privilege of posing. In their joint work of 1889, both men are extremely alert to the relationship between money and modeling: Pennington’s sketch of “THE MOST ECONOMICAL MODEL,” the separated head and body of an artist’s dummy, has no strict equivalent in Wilde’s text, but image and caption work together to dryly comment on this relationship.

Pennington’s illustrations are omitted from all the reprints of the essay that I have found. Alas, this is so often the case when well known writers address the visual arts. It is as though only the words have value, despite the fact that the words’ possible meanings are shaped by the accompanying images, and vice versa.

The situation can be rectified here. What follows is a slide-show of the original illustrated essay, as found on google books. Click on the first image and then browse though the rest of the piece. I hope you enjoy reading “London Models” as much as I have.