Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist's Model (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 374-376



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Lathers, Marie. Bodies of Art. French Literary Realism and the Artist's Model. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001. Pp. 293. ISBN 0-8032-2941-0

In this provocative study, Marie Lathers argues that French literature from Balzac through Zola to Villiers de L'Isle-Adam "looked at both itself and the visual arts through the lens of the (modern) body" (1), using the visual paradigm of [male] artist and [female] model to comment on its own intentions and abilities "to produce and dispute claims concerning representation, mimesis, and the real" (2). Her study is intended to ground literary analysis in its cultural context. "My research has therefore... first... involved the recuperation of the real models of nineteenth-century France, those largely anonymous flesh-and-blood working women who did the job of posing before artists whose own names and lives have been recorded by art history; second... endeavored to discover how literature, itself an art or form of representation as much as painting, depicts these models - how it molds and poses them to suit its own representational aims" (5).

In literature, Lathers sees "an evolution in the representation of the model's body... that parallels, curiously enough, the growth and aging of the female body.... The model's body thus represents the body of realism, a body that is born, ages, and dies like all (real) bodies" (14-15). The French renewal of interest in Raphael, particularly after the opening of his tomb in 1833, is linked to Balzac's La Peau de chagrin (1831), [End Page 374] where "Raphael the painter becomes Raphaël de Valentin, whose name... foreshadows his eventual decline as a victim of amorous desires" (75), and to Ingres's 1840 (Columbus, oh) version of Raphael and the Fornarina. In Balzac's Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu (1831) the aesthetic and lubricious charms of the artist's model are rejected; Gillette is "forgotten in a corner." Lathers sees this text (citing Wettlaufer and Barthes) as a proto-realist manifesto in which "the realist artist... turns his back on the confusion of painting and literature invoked by romanticism" (93). In La Cousine Bette (1846), Balzac replaces the professional model with the courtesan Valérie Marneffe, whose pose in bed with Baron Hulot is "art invading nature... a picture in real life" (105). Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal introduces the abhorrent "affreuse Juive" (squint-eyed, bald, diseased), obverse of the "belle Juive" model. In the Goncourt brothers' anti-Semitic Manette Solomon (1867), the Jewish female model's body is "the site of hereditary failure... a contaminated and contaminating vessel whose corpus reflects the corruption of the second Empire" (17). In Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (1873) and L'Œuvre (1886) the Parisienne model's body, mature and reproductive, is fragmented into significant parts, particularly the swollen, pregnant belly. The aged model's disintegrating body must be replaced with that of a younger woman in Maupassant's Fort comme la Mort (1889). In Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Eve future (1886), the model is replaced by an android simulacrum composed by referring to a photograph or photosculpture. The "solution" to the "problem" of the female nude (as Edouard Daelen writes in La Moralité du nu (1905)) is found in photographic reviews, for modern photography "combines, in a paradox worthy of modernity, the aesthetic pretensions of painting (including use of the model) and the consumer-oriented demands of industrial capitalism (including its demand for images of women)" (237).

Of her two goals, recovering information about actual models and discovering how literature "molds and poses them to suit its own representational aims" (5), the former goal is both straightforward in its approach and difficult to achieve. Lathers offers valuable information about professional standards for employing female models which become increasingly specialized and circumscribed on the body, as ethnic orientation dictates employment and models advertise their ability to pose for "detail" work (feet or hands or other body parts) as well as...


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