The Naked Muse – Kelley Swain

The Naked Muse is framed (sorry, couldn’t resist) by a month Swain spent in Bruges working as a life model for a class of painters. She has modelled previously in London both for classes and for individuals. While Swain discusses these experiences, she also comments on the practicalities and etiquette of live modelling, ownership of image and the artist’s gaze.

…the young woman, Sarah, is no longer looking at me, but seeing me. Under her trained painter’s eye, I’m beginning to break into shape, shadow, texture, colour […] If I glanced into Sarah’s eyes, the spell would break. I am meant to be here, but not here. I am meant to be available, but not available. I am meant to give myself wholly, yet remain at a remove.

She goes on to talk about how artists unconsciously paint themselves, even when Swain is the model in front of them. There is a discussion – one which she has had with several of the artists she’s modelled for – regarding portraits and flattery vs realism. It’s impossible for Swain to discuss her modelling experience without considering the art which is created. She interweaves thoughts and conversations about relevant theoretical concepts: Sartre’s ‘the gaze of the other’; Dayes and Hogarth on beauty, amongst others, and considers specific paintings and the women who sat for them. Her exploration of other models throughout history is particularly fascinating, especially Amelie Gautreaux, ‘Madame X’ in John Singer Sargent’s portrait. The poses and the scandals considered provide exemplification of the standards women have been and are held to by society.


Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book could also be considered the most banal: those that look at what it’s actually like to be a live model.

‘I sit,’ I write to my mother, ‘they paint’.

This is the essence.

But try it. Try sitting in a pose that you think, at first, is comfortable. Try not stretching your neck when it begins to ache. Try not scratching your ear when it begins to itch. Try not sneezing. Try keeping your eyes open, focused on the same spot on the wall. Try being still. Try not rolling your shoulders, not passing wind if you need to, not falling asleep, and not talking. Try not to think about whether you are hungry or need the loo. Try it when you’re hungover, when you haven’t slept well, when you have a cold, when you have cramps, or when you’re menstruating. Try it for five minutes. Not bad? Try it for forty.

Comfortable? Try it in the buff, in England, in January. And remember, it’s for a room full of people you’ve probably never met.

The structure of the book allows Swain to consider modelling for the same group of artists over a lengthy period of time, showing the tensions that can arise and the fluctuations in mood and well being and how that affects her work.

The Naked Muse is an interesting look at a role which is rarely considered, particularly not from the model’s point-of-view. Swain successfully melds memoir, philosophy and criticism, creating a meditation on the position of the model in the world of art.


Thanks to Valley Press for the review copy.

6 thoughts on “The Naked Muse – Kelley Swain

  1. A few years back I read Martin Gayford’s Man With a Blue Scarf about sitting for Lucien Freud, a fascinating insight into the experience of modelling for a portrait. These two knew each other well, though, and Gayford kept his clothes on. Modelling naked in front of strangers some of whom paint themselves instead of you – an interesting topic in itself – is a different thing entirely.


  2. An intriguing review about an intriguing book. I have huge respect for anyone who can model (naked). The idea of not moving for long periods of time while being naked in public are a combo of two of my worst fears … More needs to be written on this subject as historically it was often the only way female artists could make enough money to paint (Gwen John for example), leaving them at the mercy of their painterly audience (Rodin, in the context of Gwen).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love everything about this book: the themes, the cover, the title. I have just taken for granted models as beautiful objects to be seen, judged, and produce pleasure in the viewer. But I think this book goes beyond that and it sounds fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am totally intrigued by your review. I did similar work to help pay for college, only the artists were my fellow students whom I had to look in the eye on campus later. Swain’s experience, as well as a discussion of how this role impacts the role of women in the arts, sounds fascinating. Thanks for uncovering (snort) this one.

    Liked by 1 person

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