a model legacy

L@L   Adah Isaacs Menken (1831-1868),
 a disciple of Walt Whitman, she was the
 first International "super star."

Adah Menken had joined a bohemian family of emerging artists and intellectuals who networked between London and Paris and they became quite fond of her as their flamboyant American pet. In England she was escorted in the markets by Dante Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler and others who were soon to become famous in their own right.

L@L  James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903),
was the early liaison between Impressionist artists
 in America and Europe. Perhaps not coincidentally, his brother was also a Confederate spy.

Rossetti, a writer and painter, respected Adah's poetry, and was somewhat responsible for its status abroad. He also endorsed and promoted the writings of her mentor, Walt Whitman. No doubt the fellow-American Whistler welcomed the popular entertainer as a ready associate, and it would not have been absurd to have asked her to model for him during that time. After all, she had no modesty... and she was considered to be very attractive. 

L@L  Charles Howell and a lady friend (1840-1890),
blackmailer, art broker, art counterfeiter
Charles Howell, a friend of the artists and a natural-born huckster, connected Adah with the rising star in British Literature, Algernon Swinburne. Soon Adah saw in Swinburne the talent necessary to polish her poetry and to complete her book. What evolved was an amazing flow of synergy, where each person freely and shamelessly used the other. The greatest need for all of these creative types was inspiration. Each gave what he had to enable the other. For artists, nothing could be more inspiring than a beautiful model. And since many models ended up being the artist's lovers... well you can imagine. And no one gave more inspiration than Adah.

She was not without competition. Rossetti and his associate William Morris shared models, and often stole them from one another. The artists contended for the most beautiful, expressive, uninhibited models. There was Fanny Eaton the exotic mulatto from the Caribbean. She brought a multicultural flair to the mix. 

 L@L  Fanny Eaton (1835-1924)
 must have straightened her hair before she
 learned the artists preferred her natural "Afro."

L@L  Rosa Corder (1853-1893) artist and occasional
 counterfeiter, ran with Howell, then modeled for Whistler.

After Adah was long gone beautiful Rosa Corder, a fledgling artist and Charles Howell's girl friend, (and forger of Rossettis!) did a little modeling as well. Later she would move back to the U.S. and model for James Whistler after Howell was found murdered in a New York gutter, with a coin pressed between his teeth (In other words, just in case anyone might misunderstand, the coin was inserted ). He was not killed defending himself during a robbery, just outright murdered.

 L@L  Jane Burden Morris (1839-1914) 
Artist's muse and model for William Morris and Dante Rossetti.

But the real fireworks had been over Jane Morris. Tall and shapely, with a unique face that branded any canvas she graced. Jane was married to William Morris... but ended up on Dante Rossetti's pedestal. It was Rossetti who got the girl and the worldwide reputation, built on her sad aura. Somehow, they all remained friendly. Jane's daughter May Morris grew up to be an artist's model as well. 

 L@L May Morris (1862-1938)

It has never been suggested before... but I believe Adah Menken may well have modeled for a couple of artists while in Europe. It makes perfect sense, and my eye has found perfect proof. It is known that she frolicked off to France with Gustave Courbet at one point. Perhaps somebody had been doing too much bragging about their source of "inspiration." Whatever the case, there were paintings done by Courbet which suggest that Adah Menken left a lasting legacy in French art. You be the judge. 

Gustave Courbet was a sort of uncle to the Impressionists.  He was undoubtedly the most adventuresome of the French artists,  unafraid of breaking conventions or offending the masses. Here is unquestionable proof that Menken left a silent if not seductive legacy in Europe. Two paintings, both by Courbet, and perhaps his most famous...

Gustave Courbet: Woman With A Parrot- 1866
 Please forgive the intrusions on Courbet's works... but this was the best way to show Adah Menken's facial characteristics juxtaposed against his figures. It has always been suggested that these works were inspired by the model Joanna Hiffernan. 

 Sorry, but Joanna Hiffernan was not pretty enough to be the nude above. Powerful neck, no forehead. Sunken, down-slanted eyes. Misfitting lips.

Hiffernan, Whistler's former flame and model, no doubt did model for Courbet, perhaps in "Origin of the World," where he cut off her head, and Sleep (1866), a highly suggestive work that may have been the first nude lesbian love scene, which featured her and someone else... Adah may have starred in that one as well. Most researchers believe she was at least bi-sexual, from the content of her private correspondence. 

Gustave Courbet: The Bather- 1868- and the profile of Adah Menken.

Once again, near exact face AND body type. Hiffernan may have modeled her hair. But the face is a final tribute to Adah Isaacs Menken. Perhaps the artists were infatuated, INSPIRED, and yet unafraid to paint her as she was... after all, she planned to eventually go back to the States... thus no local or regional reputation to protect.

If you read the story of Menken, you understand how integrated she was with the creative forces in England and France.  It seems she was striving for a sort of artistic triple crown, doing her necessary melodramas to finance her writing, loving up Swinburne and Dumas and others to glean whatever she could to establish her literary foundation, and posing nude for the most prominent and scandalous artists of the day. 

This was where France was 140 years ago... and to some degree inspired by an American. It was where America was headed.

But enough about Menken. Her stubborn flame was extinguished before the fire had gotten hot. These old dark tintypes only make the story approachable. The soul of it was in the visionaries and masters who had only begun to re-invent our culture. And that was mostly in Paris. Menken had said "Know Paris and die." For once, she meant every word she said.

NEXT: Go to agents of healing: American Artists 

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