“That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue — my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned,” Audrey Munson, the favorite nude model of the Beaux Arts movement in the United States, once proclaimed. And that openness to posing in often freezing artist studios completely naked, in uncomfortable poses with swayed legs and hair held back with bended arms, such as for Adolph Alexander Weinman’s “Descending Night” (1914), or practically on tip toes for Alexander Stirling Calder’s “Star Maiden,” endlessly duplicated at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, earned her incredible acclaim.
Yet following those Gilded Age years as the “American Venus,” she had a failed silent film career (which was mainly based on her titillating full nudity, a first time for a Hollywood film), was caught in a murder scandal, attempted suicide by poison, and was ultimately committed to a mental institution until her death in 1996. It’s the kind of operatic rise and fall that’s irresistibly voyeuristic, the young beauty corrupted by fame, burning out as fantastically as a falling star (or “Star Maiden”). The Curse of Beauty by James Bone, out last month from Regan Arts, is a biography that methodically chronicles her life with thorough research by the former New York Bureau Chief for the Times of London. So not surprisingly, a recent article in Variety reported that Judith Regan, of publisher Regan Arts, “plans to shop the movie rights, and thinks Jennifer Lawrence should play the lead.”
I first read about Munson when writing on the representation of women in New York’s public statuary. While there are only five historic women among the city’s numerous monuments, other anonymous women are immortalized in bronze, granite, and marble as allegorical figures, goddesses, and angels. Munson is unrivaled in these portrayals, appearing in countless early 20th-century statues, from the seated figures that once guarded the Manhattan Bridge and are now installed outside the Brooklyn Museum, to the gilded lady on the top of the Manhattan Municipal Building, to a duo of marble sculptures by Daniel Chester French in the atrium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her neoclassical beauty, with her strong silhouette and raised brow, along with feminine curves, made her a favorite among the bohemian artist community of Greenwich Village’s MacDougal Alley, where she went door-to-door looking for work after being discovered on the streets by a photographer.
In The Curse of Beauty, Bone argues that part of what caused Munson to fade from memory, even when she was once a household name, was the rise of modernism. Bone doesn’t explore this, but many of the artists Munson posed for are also now obscure compared to their previous prominence, their figurative idealism falling out of fashion in the later decades of the 20th century. Frederick MacMonnies, whose fountain outside the New York Public Library was based on some of her posing, is now best known for his “Civic Virtue” statue exiled to Green-Wood Cemetery; Alexander Stirling Calder was surpassed in fame by his mobile-mastering son, Alexander Calder.
Bone describes Munson’s visit to the studio of avant-garde French-Cuban painter Francis Picabia, one of New York’s first modernist transplants from Europe, who asked Munson to walk around rather than hold a static pose. Munson derided the resulting painting as “an incongruous collection of color splotches.” Bone writes:
Modernism, and all its associated “isms” — cubism, fauvism, dadaism, futurism, expressionism, and surrealism — was breaking upon the unsuspecting world, Audrey’s world. Apart from her encounter with Picabia, her artists came from the generation immediately prior to modernism, the generation that would be cast aside and forgotten in the face of its transformative cultural force. Audrey didn’t work for isms.
Much of the book is focused on recording as many facts as possible about Munson’s life (the author is, after all, coming from the world of journalism), and what The Curse of Beauty lacks is some deeper discussion into this art world where Munson fit perfectly, and then not at all. I would love to read more analysis of the sculptures in which she appeared, and how their portrayal of this rather modern woman, at least in terms of her appreciation of the naked body, merged with their adhesion to classical ideals.
Some coverage on The Curse of Beauty has stated that it’s the first biography on Munson, which isn’t entirely true; Diana Rozas published American Venus: The Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson, Model and Muse in 1999, and in 2007 Andrea Geyer published the Queen of the Artists’ Studios artist book based on years of researching Munson’s modeling and writing. And although Munson is definitely overlooked in art history as a muse to some of the great works of Beaux Arts, the more lurid details of her life have popped up in sensational, weird history articles in recent years. (Even some coverage for the book can’t resist titles like “America’s First Supermodel Died Alone in a Mental Asylum” and “America’s First Supermodel Is Shunned by Our Cultural Elite” that might as well be headlining some old yellow journalism.)
What I haven’t seen in the dialogue on Munson’s life is a call for better appreciation of artist models, who remain important participants in art, sharing their individual faces and forms to be transformed into expressions of our collective humanity. Look up next time you go to the Frick Collection at the nude woman reclining above the door; that is Munson, and the fact it is a real person behind that stone character, that the work was formed through hours in the studio in a partnership between the artist and the model, makes the visual experience more meaningful. Regan Arts has an online map plotting statues for which Munson modeled, and the physical book’s dust jacket unfolds into a map of Manhattan, so you can witness in-person these tangible reminders of Munson, the city’s own fallen goddess.