Degas’s Model Tells All


Arts & Culture

Edgar Degas, Sulking, ca. 1870, oil on canvas.


Chrissakes, Pauline! No one would have been more horrified than Edgar Degas at the thought of a model taking up the pen. Not a fan of working-class literacy in general, he might well have died of apoplexy at the very idea that a model might dare not only to write about art but about his art. And from the very first words, we know that Alice Michel’s memoir is not going to be a typical hagiography of a great dead artist. This Degas is not the elegant gentleman, proud member of the Parisian haute bourgeoisie and scion of a well-to-do and diasporic family, with branches running banks in Naples and plantations in New Orleans. Nor is he the grand habitué of ballets, café concerts, and the opera, haunting the loges alongside his one-time friend librettist Ludovic Halévy. Not the cultivated disciple of Mallarmé who tried his hand at the occasional sonnet, not the obsessive aesthete who co-organized the exhibitions that made Impressionism an art-world phenomenon, and certainly not the purveyor of cutting, perfectly formed witticisms at exhibitions and dinner parties. 

When the Mercure de France published the two installments of Degas and His Model in February of 1919, the artist’s legacy was nearing apotheosis. Begun early the previous year, the ongoing auctions of his atelier and private collection had already set new records. Bidders braved active German bombing campaigns to crowd into the Galerie Georges Petit on rue de Sèze in the hopes of taking home a pastel dancer or two of their own. The international press lavished attention on the sales, which were even reported in wartime Germany after a sympathetic Swiss citizen offered himself as a stringer. Back in Paris, Le Figaro devoted columns to Degas’s genius alongside long lists of works sold and the eye-watering prices they’d fetched, prices that even Degas’s dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, thought perfectly insane. At the same time, colleagues and friends of the artist published dozens of eulogies, remembrances, and collections of anecdotes testifying to his artistic inventiveness and indefatigable drive. Paul Lafond’s 1918 two-volume Degas, the first book-length monograph, is a typical case, presenting the artist as a totally unprecedented original genius and the logical conclusion and summation of French painting going back to Poussin.

In contrast, Michel’s Degas is an almost systematic inversion of the reverent testimonials current in the French press in the years after the artist’s death in 1917. Degas, as seen by the model Pauline, is no stoic devotee of the Muses but a curmudgeon subject to sudden bouts of theatrical self-pity, always on the verge of collapsing into melancholy ruminations over his failing sight, his oncoming death. The artist famous for his deft public quips becomes, in private, a mealymouthed, repetitious prattler, retailing twenty-year-old anecdotes for the two-hundredth time. Instead of zingers (e.g., Gustave Moreau is “a hermit who knows what time the trains leave”), the model is obliged to de-escalate incoherent rants about Jewish conspiracies and feign interest in foggy reminiscences of trips to Italy and bouts of pubic lice. This Degas is not only tedious company but a volatile and occasionally violent taskmaster, liable to punch Pauline in the back or threaten her with a hammer when the session isn’t going as well as the artist would like, and perfectly capable of firing her for reading a book or—virulently anti-Semitic as he was—posing for a Jew. But perhaps the most cutting feature of Michel’s portrait is that “old Father Degas” is artistically impotent. He can finish nothing, and statuettes that represent years of work over hundreds of sessions crumble to dust before his eyes, to be begun again, and again, in a cycle broken only by his death. Instead of a prolific visionary, Michel’s Degas more resembles a Beckett character retrofitted for Third Republic melodrama.


Who was Alice Michel, and who was the model who provided the evidence for this thoroughly demystified version of Degas? There is no other record of a woman by that name writing for the Mercure de France, which, in any case, very rarely published women at the time. Nor is there a trace of her in any of the other contemporary French newspapers and literary journals, and her name isn’t to be found in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. While there are presumably documents in the journal’s own archives that would allow one to follow the manuscript’s receipt, editing, and publication, including payment made to someone with an ascertainable identity, those records are privately held and closed to the public. As for Pauline, three models by that name are listed in a handful of pages in one of Degas’s notebooks, where he was in the habit of jotting down models’ addresses: Pauline Fournier, Pauline Lansart, and Pauline Friese, three candidates for the source of Degas and His Model. But Degas used the notebooks haphazardly over the course of his career, making individual entries impossible to date, so there is no way to know when any of these three models posed for him, nor whether one of them did so in December of 1910, when Michel’s Pauline claims to have posed for a version of the sculpture Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot.

The handful of art historians and curators who have drawn on Michel’s text to establish chronologies for specific sculptures, or for information about Degas’s late studio practice, otherwise sparsely documented, have typically assumed that the text is authentic. The editors of the 2012 French edition issued by L’Échoppe come to similar conclusions, asserting that Michel and Pauline are pseudonyms for the same individual, a model relating her firsthand experience. But there are certainly reasons to suspect that the real nature of the text is not so straightforward. In its original publication in the Mercure de France, it was presented without commentary, and no explicit claims were made for its authenticity. Nowhere does Michel state that she is Pauline or that the events she uses Pauline to narrate constitute a “firsthand view.” The model herself remains a cipher: we learn nearly nothing of her family life, of how she came to modeling, of what she does when she’s not posing. She serves instead to establish a perspectival framework that allows Michel to string together anecdotes about Degas, a format typical of accounts of artists’ lives in the period. And those anecdotes often seem carefully considered to hit on aspects of his personality that were, to some degree, commonly known—his political conservatism, his gruff manner—as if Michel were making an effort to hew just closely enough to testimonials by individuals known to have been intimate with the artist. Finally, the decision to begin Pauline’s account in medias res, with Degas’s light curse almost a distant echo of Alfred Jarry’s famous “Pschitt,” is certainly a literary touch. If Pauline is not necessarily Michel and vice versa, who could have been behind all this? An unknown individual capitalizing on the spate of interest in Degas? An associate of the recently deceased artist, male or female, writing under the cover of a pseudonym to slightly deflate his skyrocketing posthumous reputation? A journalist working from interviews with a model or models to produce a synoptic account?

Are the intricate descriptions of the artist’s studio and apartment sufficient evidence to demonstrate a kernel of authenticity somewhere in the text’s nested pseudonyms? Despite the artist’s notorious reclusiveness, previously published memoirs revealed at least some of this supposedly intimate information. But Michel provides one detail that might inspire confidence, precisely because of its seeming inconsequence: Pauline reports two sessions in the course of which Degas drinks an infusion of cherry-bark tea prepared for him by his maid, to ease a bladder disorder that forces him to get out of bed a half dozen times a night to urinate. It’s a microscopic detail that Vollard, in his own subsequently published book on the artist, also mentions: “He was walking about with a bowl of cherry bark tea in his hand and suddenly he looked up absently and said: ‘Do you have trouble urinating? I do, and so does my friend Z.’ ” Homeopathic infusions and troublesome nocturia were not, as might be expected, common features of testimonials about Degas.

My own belief, which I cannot prove, is that Pauline was indeed a professional model who worked for Degas, as Michel presented her, but that Michel herself was a pseudonym adopted by Rachilde, the pioneering decadent novelist who cofounded and edited the Mercure de France with her husband, Alfred Vallette. Traveling in progressive and protofeminist circles in early twentieth-century Paris, and occupying a significant position in an overwhelmingly male industry, Rachilde would likely have been sensitive to issues of women’s labor. Perhaps just as importantly, she had the institutional power to see that such an extremely unusual document found its way into print.


Whoever Michel was, she left us, if not a first-, then at least a secondhand view not only on Degas’s late work but on the work of the model herself. As interviews with models published by turn-of-the-century journalists like Alfred Dollfus and Marie Laparcerie demonstrate, no matter where you posed, the work was guaranteed to be precarious: the winter high season alternated with months of unemployment when commissions fell off and artists left Paris for their country homes. It was also relatively stigmatized: Dollfus, for instance, often seems to suggest there’s only the thinnest line between modeling and unregulated prostitution. But if you posed for Degas, conditions were perhaps notably worse. He paid poorly, at a rate of five francs a session, the same amount a model working two decades earlier could have expected. The atelier was cold and perpetually filthy, and, perversely for a man who spent so much of his life depicting bathing women, models were not permitted to wash themselves. And Degas had a mania for strenuous poses that left the women who assumed them cramped and numb. But since he often hired models for four or five sessions a week, the one thing that could be said for it was that it was regular.

Michel’s account also makes clear just how much of Pauline’s energy went into the affective labor of managing Degas’s mood swings, a delicate task that required her to show interest in the artist without him becoming suspicious that she might be having anything like an idea of her own. “Now there are even models who come around wanting to talk to you about art, painting, literature, as if it were enough simply to know how to read and write to really understand anything.” The slightest hint of working-class intelligence makes him rant until he drools. Pauline holds her tongue, knowing that any objection will get her fired on the spot. She held it for almost a decade, until Alice Michel helped her have her say.


This introduction is excerpted from Alice Michel’s Degas and His Model, translated by Jeff Nagy and forthcoming from David Zwirner Books. Nagy is a translator, critic, and historian of technology based in Palo Alto, California. His research focuses on networks pre- and post-Internet and the development of digital labor.