Helga Testorf is considered to be the last unknown person made famous by a painting. Testorf was Andrew Wyeth’s model from 1971 to 1985, during which time Wyeth secretly made over 240 paintings of her and hid them from everyone, including his wife. When the “Helga Pictures” were released in 1986, the public went wild with salacious curiosity, inevitably posing the question of whether the artist and model were sexually involved. Even 27 years after the paintings were made public, Testorf had to address the question in the BBC’s production “Michael Palin in Wyeth’s World,” stating, “They didn’t know any better. They did not know our language, we were not talking that way. We had better things to think about.”
Our culture seems obsessed with the artist/model relationship, portrayed in countless movies and narratives as a relationship that is — and can only be — lustful and scandalous. Any iconic artist seems inevitably required to have some kind of torrid love affair or long-term romance with their “muse,” who usually started as or became their life model. The relationship is nearly always male artist / female model, and this storied dynamic props up our continued perception of women as objects, and what’s more, women who disrobe as sexually available.
Modeling is a serious profession which suffers from the narrative that a (usually female) model’s worth comes from their ability to spark romantic inspiration in their (usually male) artist counterpart. While true artists and models generally understand this notion to be exaggerated, the perpetuation of this singular narrative affects all of us. Having worked as a professional model and artist, I can attest that it is not sexy or crackling with tension like movies and fantasies would have us believe. So, why does this narrative persist, and what are its implications?
After the challenging transition from child to young adult, young women especially can feel that their bodies don’t belong to them, but instead to the critical gaze of society. Like many others, my self-esteem suffered as I judged my body against idealized standards, and my own image in the mirror became disappointing and uncanny. Art modeling gave me a way out of that cycle.
The assumption that one must be entirely self-confident in order to model for artists is a misconception. Rather, modeling gave me back my self-esteem and healed me. Modeling is not like standing before a mirror; artists’ eyes, though analyzing, are not criticizing. The model’s image is only reflected in the artists’ interpretation. Modeling liberated me from judging my body, and societal expectations lost their hold over me.
Media’s depiction of the artist’s studio as a heavily sensual space is likewise a misconception. In my experience, the opposite is true: Rather than being under the microscope of a covetous gaze, the model is considered something timeless and honorable. The relationship between model and artist is intimate, simply for the shared trust, collaboration, and privacy. This intimacy is generally misconstrued, resulting in the fantasies we see of the artist/model relationship.
Testorf speaks of modeling in terms of love, but it is not Wyeth she is referring to, rather the act of modeling itself, “I was pretty serious that I had found what I loved …. It’s a real thing; you have your work with you and your passion, and your freedom.” Her words resonate with me, because modeling is passionate work. It is also very difficult, physically painful, and mentally taxing. It requires a spirit of generosity and empathy. Many models and artists prefer to consider themselves as collaborators, giving weight to the amount of work a model actually does, rather than the passivity of simply existing that the concept of a “muse” implies. The majority of artists who use models respect this hard work and require it.
However, outside the artist’s studio, the intrusive, erotic narrative returns. Dating was a minefield of people who either believed I was promiscuous, or hoped that I would stop modeling one day, the assumption being that my time spent with artists was suspect. An artist is expected to hire and use models, but as a model I was questioned about why I chose the work I did. The model’s body is only acceptable when others are translating it for her.
When I left full-time modeling and began my own art practice, the use of my body in my artwork provoked scrutiny and censorship. I am deeply hurt to be thrust back into the judgement and sexualization of my body that I had finally disengaged myself from. Simply because I use my body in my artwork, I am required to engage with topics of feminism, sexuality, and censorship. After spending years in an environment that showed me how to value my body on my own terms, once again my body and its meaning do not seem to belong to me.
On the other hand, the artists who I modeled for are not held to the same kind of scrutiny. They do not get asked why they paint or draw from the nude figure in the same way I now must defend the use my own nude body in my artwork.
Helga Testorf handily dismisses the suggestive ideas surrounding her relationship as a model for Wyeth. Her love for modeling was as strong as his love for painting her, and that was where the love was, not in romance. And yet, the world cannot let it go. The trope of the available (female) model and desirous (male) artist persists, limiting artists whose work does not conform to the narrative, and perpetuating traditional gender roles.
The problem does not lie in the age-old tradition of the model/artist relationship; the problem lies in our need for it to be something more, something which justifies our preoccupation with objectifying women’s bodies and sexualizing intimate relationships. As long as we view the artist/model relationship this way, we miss the real romance — the one Testorf and Wyeth knew well.