Artists and Models: Lots Of Innuendo But Little Romance Among Cincinnati’s Bohemians

The rigorous life modeling scene in the early days of the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
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Artists, even student artists, need models to perfect their skills. Cincinnati’s Art Students League drafted one of their members to fill that role.

IMAGE FROM LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY 29 SEPTEMBER 1883

Artists and their models have attracted uncharitable suspicion for centuries. A nude woman behind closed doors with a bohemian man? Fervid imaginations erupted in the form of novels, movies and Broadway shows to insinuate all sorts of hanky-panky.

In Cincinnati, the male gaze was no less intense, though, in typical Midwest fashion, Queen City men indulged in their fantasies vicariously, enlisting disreputable journalists such as Lafcadio Hearn to actually infiltrate a painter’s studio. Hearn’s exposé in the Cincinnati Enquirer [18 October 1874], headlined “Beauty Undraped: What A Wicked Reporter Saw In An Artist’s Studio,” was very much on-brand for our most peculiar scribe. The premise of the article involved a local artist informing Hearn that a “ravishingly beautiful female model” had been procured for a sitting by one of Hearn’s artist acquaintances. Hearn’s source was most likely his pal, artist Henry Farny.

Of course, Hearn cadged an invitation to the atelier and did his best to imitate a student artist or a wealthy patron or both. Inside, while a couple of students sketched on paper tablets, the master daubed a canvas mounted on an easel. Hearn was gobsmacked by his first glimpse of the naked nymph:

“She lay at full length upon a long sofa, unclad and unadorned save by the matchless gifts of nature, her white limbs lightly crossed, both hands clasped over her graceful little head, and her luxurious blonde hair streaming loose beneath her in a river of tawny gold.”

By the close of his brief essay, Hearn was overcome by the vapors and had retired to a convenient divan, cigar dangling from his tremulous lips.

For the artists themselves, nudity was business, just another product line like flowers or landscapes or grandiose portraits of corporate magnates. Posing was also business for the models, and good times yielded fewer models than recessions. The Cincinnati Post [27 March 1907] headlined a report “Prosperity Causes Famine In Models.” The recent boom in business, according to the newspaper, created a scarcity of models because so many other, less demanding, jobs attracted women and men who declined to sit motionless for hours underdressed in a drafty studio.

“All the artists are busy preparing for the spring exhibition, and without models they can’t paint pictures.”

In Cincinnati, only Wilson Russell, who apparently possessed a classic “dad bod,” was committed to posing full-time. Russell was recruited to portray “Burgomasters and peasants, devils and St. John the Baptist.” His repertoire serves as a reminder that nudity was rarely a necessity in the art world. Cincinnati artists churned out all sorts of subjects, from religious icons to genre scenes, from civic murals to family portraits.

Posing was hard work. The Commercial Tribune recounted the declining career of a once in-demand model who fell asleep while posing and had been ignored by artists ever since. Even a strapping young man was unprepared for the rigors of artistic modeling:

“An artist was lately searching for a youth with a finely developed physique to pose for the figure of a stalwart Roman. After many discouraging efforts, a young athlete was found. He performed feats of strength for the edification of the artist. Notwithstanding his accomplishments, after he had been posing for, perhaps, fifteen minutes he became so fatigued that he gave up in despair. He has not since been seen about the ateliers.”

Sometimes it was the artists who turned models against posing. Arline Haworth, an in-demand model, told the Cincinnati Post [13 November 1903] that women artists were the worst:

“Who wants to pose for women? They open the windows, give you a cold, scold you when you get tired and discuss your weak points most unfeelingly right before your eyes. Those girl students at the Academy won’t paint me, I guess. Not while there is a man artist left in this burg.”

A young lady from Cumminsville was enthusiastically welcomed by Cincinnati’s artists, even when she brought along her mother and a maiden aunt as chaperones.

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

Others found the chores of standing stock-still more appealing. If you look up at the sculptural frieze above the cornice of Memorial Hall, you will see multiple statues of soldiers and sailors, all of them replicating the virile form of James Rollins, known as the “best man-model” in the city. Rollins told the Post [23 February 1909] that years of posing had cured his chronic pleurisy. Rollins posed for painters and sculptors on the side. In his day job, he was a butler for one of Cincinnati’s Blue-Book families.

Cincinnati artists, in their own way, promoted a diversity of subjects. African Americans frequently posed for local painters. Martha Ward, an African American woman, was among the go-to models at the Cincinnati Art Academy for many years before her death in 1904.

Native American models also enjoyed artistic favor, especially for Henry Farny and his Fourth Street colleagues Joseph Henry Sharp and John Hauser. Farny was particularly attached to a Sioux tribesman known locally as Indian Joe, but among his people as Ogallala Fire. Farny got his friend a job as janitor at the Cincinnati Art Club on Fourth Street. The Art Club offered generous flextime and Ogallala Fire could take off for weeks at a time if a decent vaudeville gig came around.

Modeling was among the routes followed by young folks, mostly women, to careers on stage or in films. One of the ingenues discovered by the Cincinnati art crowd was Autumn Sims, who left small-town Indiana for the lures of Cincinnati’s Fourth Street, where she was proclaimed the “ideal type of American beauty.” Throughout the 1920s, in addition to gracing the downtown studios and the Art Academy classrooms, Miss Sims parlayed her good looks into a handful of film roles and prominent placement in a couple of magazine advertisements for cosmetics.

Cincinnati had some scandalous models, such as Elizabeth McCombs, who graced hundreds of life-sized posters advertising Cincinnati’s Fall Festival. Miss McCombs had the eye of many Cincinnati artists, but she also acquired a taste for beer and for the better things in life. She was pursued by a German baron, who decided that money was more important than beauty and transferred his affections to a Cincinnati heiress. When the police raided an after-hours saloon on Liberty Street, Miss McCombs was hauled into court and attempted to disguise herself but everyone in the courtroom knew her on sight.

Although they continually complained about the dearth of women models, Cincinnati artists were not desperate enough to hire just any young thing who strolled through the door. Farny told the Post [1b August 1904] about one such applicant who wandered in from deep in Kentucky, drawn by the allure of romance. To quote Farny:

“She was a six-foot, slab-sided woman with a face like half-ripe blackberries, and sunburnt hair, twisted in a hard, tight knot at the back of her pear-shaped head.”

The applicant refused Farny’s offer of a position as a cleaning lady, her head full of the romance she had read about in some dime novel or unsavory magazine.

Other applicants were more warmly received, although some were considerably timid about the prospect of that romantic stuff. The Post [11 July 1907] reported the arrival of a young woman, identified by the pseudonym “Miss Peachblossom” at the “Little Bohemia” on the top floor of the Harrison Building on Fourth Street. It was summer and female models were nonexistent in Cincinnati, so when she knocked on the door of David Rosenthal, she was immediately admitted and offered an opportunity to sit the very next day. She appeared promptly on time, in the company of her mother and a maiden aunt, who sat on either side of the model while the artist painted, determined that Miss Peachblossom would be exposed to as little romance as was humanly possible.

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