Walking through a modern art gallery, you may notice that some names and faces appear more often than others. During the first decades of the twentieth century, avant-garde artists experimented with portraying their new reality. They often found inspiration in the same remarkable characters who embodied the new age. Below are stories of six remarkable women who shaped modernity and its art.
1. Alma Mahler (1879-1964): Austria’s Famous Model
Alma Mahler, once known as The Most Beautiful Girl in Vienna, was a composer, yet she received much more fame for her tumultuous personal life than for her songs. A daughter of a prominent artist, Alma was surrounded by Vienna’s most important creatives from the moment of her birth. In her late teens, Gustav Klimt, who was already an established artist in his forties, fell desperately in love with her, but the feeling was not mutual. It is unlikely that Klimt ever painted Alma Mahler’s portrait, yet some experts believe that glimpses of her features appear in various works of his.
In her early twenties, Alma married the composer Gustav Mahler who wrote several pieces as her musical portraits. Still, the greatest and most dramatic impact of Alma Mahler on art was her dramatic affair with the Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. During their two years together, Kokoschka created dozens of paintings and drawings. Nonetheless, the romance was ill-fated. After two years, demanding and often cruel Alma got bored and left the artist for the Bauhaus mastermind Walter Gropius. Kokoschka’s reaction was bizarre, to say the least. He commissioned a life-sized doll of Alma and lived with her for several months, taking her to theaters and restaurants before decapitating the doll in his yard in a fit of rage.
2. Gertrude Stein
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The common image of an artist’s model usually features a young, conventionally attractive woman who is often the object of the artist’s affection. Gertrude Stein, the character who frequently appears in artworks and memoirs, was none of those things. One of the most influential women of early twentieth-century Paris could not care less about beauty standards and opinions of men.
Stein was an American poet, collector, patron, and promoter of arts who moved to Paris in the early 1900s. Her art collection grew day by day, and her weekly salon gathered the most outstanding artists and writers, allowing them to exchange ideas and inspirations.
Not only Stein was buying artworks, but she frequently appeared in them, too. Her famous proteges like Francis Picabia and Felix Vallotton painted her portraits, yet the most famous one was done by Pablo Picasso. His 1905 portrait of Gertrude Stein was a transitional work between Picasso’s rose period and his Cubist phase. Stein’s facial features bear a resemblance to African masks, which inspired the birth of Cubism in modern art.
3. Suzy Solidor (1900 – 1983)
The illegitimate child of a baron and his maid, Suzy Solidor made her name as the owner of an infamous lesbian nightclub La Vie Parisienne. Solidor was one of the first true celebrities who used her public persona and gossip to propel and promote her business. She sang outrageously explicit songs about her relationships with women, and appeared in films as a dark seductress, leading innocent girls to a life full of drugs and sin.
Contemporaries called Suzy Solidor the most painted woman in the world. Her personal collection included more than three dozen portraits. Others said that more than two hundred paintings were at least partially inspired by her look. With dozens of works by artists like Picasso, Fujita, and Braque, the most famous image inspired by her was a nude painting done by another open-minded woman of her age—Tamara de Lempicka.
Her last portrait was painted by Francis Bacon. In 1957, Solidor commissioned Bacon a work to help him pay his gambling debt. Both hated the final result. Bacon detested painting people during sittings, preferring to work from memory, but Solidor nonetheless kept it in her collection until the 1970s, when Bacon bought it back and allegedly destroyed it.
4. Luisa Casati
Marchesa Luisa Casati was one of the wealthiest women in Italy and a muse of dozens of artists and writers. She lost both her parents when she was just fifteen, and from that moment on, her life turned into an endless parade of lavish parties, dramatic affairs, and eccentric acts propelled by her massive inheritance.
Casati herself was an artist of a very special kind: her one and only artwork was the persona of Luisa Casati, her astonishing appearance, and her outrageous behavior. She was a being from a decadent nightmare: thin and tall, with unkept hair dyed bright orange and a wild look of heavily lined eyes. She used poisonous belladonna drops to make her eyes darker and wore layers of fake eyelashes and enormous hats. She could hardly be bothered to wear anything but a fur coat while walking her menagerie of wild cats.
A white skeleton-like figure of a nude Marchesa with ocelots on a leash was too familiar for the residents of Venice at the time. Such eccentricity could not pass unnoticed by her contemporaries. Casati’s nightmarish and magnetic look fascinated artists like Jean Cocteau, Romaine Brooks, Augustus John, and Giovanni Boldini.
The new generation of artists—young and radical Italian Futurists—praised her. Marinetti described her as a panther that had just devoured the bars of her cage. Nonetheless, the panther would end her life in poverty and misery after spending all of her inheritance and amassing a $25 million debt. Unable to earn a living, she spent her last years in London rummaging through waste bins looking for fabric scraps to decorate her worn-out hats.
5. Suzanne Valadon (1865 – 1938)
Being an artist’s model may sound sophisticated and fun, but for many women of Suzanne Valadon’s time, this was not a romantic calling but a harsh necessity. Modeling was a common occupation for single women of lower classes who struggled to get well-paid jobs. Posing for artists brought good money but at the cost of a ruined reputation. The public saw models as sex workers, unsuitable for the roles of good wives and mothers.
However, Suzanne Valadon could not care less about public opinion. An illegitimate daughter of a laundress, she quickly learned that she had to invent her own set of rules instead of following the existing ones. By her late teens, she already did a bunch of weird jobs—she went from funerary wrath weaver to circus performing—but fame found her when she switched to modeling. Her small and fit physique, deep blue eyes, and unmatchable wit quickly made Valadon a favorite model of Renoir, Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse-Lautrec, Berthe Morisot, and many others.
Valadon was different from other models, but not only because of her exceptional beauty. She did not merely pose: she carefully studied every movement of an artist’s hand to later repeat it in her own studio. Supported and guided by her friends and clients, Valadon soon switched to painting, establishing a remarkably successful artistic career.
6. Kiki de Montparnasse (1901-1953): The Tragic End of The Famous Model
Alice Prin, also known as Kiki de Montparnasse, did not have a privileged childhood filled with beautiful things. Growing up in poverty, she escaped her reality by using her beauty. Not many things were available to the girl, so she used flowers instead of blush and burnt matchsticks instead of kohl. Like Suzanne Valadon, she earned her living by modeling, so she was soon disowned by her family because of her occupation. Homeless and alone, she found herself in Montmartre. There, she found friends and clients like Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo (the son of Suzanne Valadon), Jean Cocteau, and Amedeo Modigliani.
Young, exceptionally beautiful, free-spirited, and unburdened by traditional morality, Kiki de Montparnasse symbolized the short-lived era of artistic freedom, discovery, and unity. She posed for Man Ray and appeared in his films, sang in cabarets, and published a memoir with an introduction written by Ernest Hemingway. After World War II rampaged through Europe, the world of cabarets, poetry, and jazz collapsed. Depressed and lonely, Kiki drowned her failed career in drugs and alcohol until she died at the age of 51. During her funeral, Tsuguharu Fujita noted that burying Kiki meant the burial of the whole era to which they all once belonged.