Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Reading Venus 1: The Reading Girl (Harriet Pettigrew) by Théodore Roussel and the Pettigrew sisters

The Reading Girl (1886)

One of the easiest things to get a model to do, while she endures the tedious process of being captured on paper or canvas, is to let her read a book.  The fact that she is concentrating on a book also distances her from the viewer.  There is no opportunity to engage the viewer directly as her gaze is elsewhere.  It adds a voyeuristic quality to the picture.  This painting, by French born but London based artist Théodore Roussel, is a marvellous composition.  Irish painter William Orpen called it the finest nude painting of the time, although its realism shocked many.

Roussel, Study from the nude of a girl standing (1890) (Hetty Pettigrew) 

Roussel was born in Brittany and came to painting comparatively late, after his military service in the Franco-Prussian war had finished.  Starting to paint in 1872 he was almost entirely self-taught, as he had dropped out of art college in France, and came to London in 1884 where he lived for the rest of his life.  In 1885 he met James McNeill Whistler who became a great friend and mentor.

Roussel, Portrait of Hetty Pettigrew (1908)

The model in this painting is nineteen year old Hetty (Harriet) Pettigrew (1867-1953) who, with her sisters Lily (b. 1870) and Rose (b. 1872), modelled for Whistler, Millais, Godward, Poynter. Leighton, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and others.  Hetty was born in Portsmouth but the family were originally from the West Country.  Millais said that the sisters were gypsies (although they themselves claimed aristocratic antecedents) and her sister Rose described Hetty as having a "cruel wit".  They were generally considered. by those who painted them. as a bit of a handful.

An Idyll of 1745 (1884) by John Everett Millais (L to R: Rose, Hetty and Lily Pettigrew)

They penniless Pettigrew sisters came to London in 1884 after the death of their father, when Hetty was just seventeen.  Their brother was an artist and believed that their looks would see them get jobs as models.  He was right and that year she and her younger sisters, Rose (Rose Amy) and Lily (Lillian) wrote to Millais looking for work.  Millais, impressed by their looks, had them model for his painting An Idyll of 1745, where they appear as Scottish peasant girls listening to an English piper.  The message being that in the midst of war children's innocence has the power to bring peace.

JW Godward (1861-1922) Portrait of Harriet Pettigrew in Classical Dress (1887)  

The Pettigrew sisters became the most sought after models in London, with painters offering them bribes to pose for them instead of other artists.  The Pettigrew sisters commanded daily fees for modelling of no less half a guinea a day, about twice what a housemaid would earn in a week.

Reclining nude ("Venus") by Whistler (c. 1887) (Hetty Pettigrew)

There was little innocence left in Hetty by the time she modelled for one of Whistler's most sensuous nudes in around 1887.  In this etching she is shown gently caressing her right breast and it may have been this overt pose that meant he never sold or exhibited it.

The Arabian by Whistler (c. 1890)

Whistler also did a pastel based on the same pose, although the hand in The Arabian is now toying with her hair, rather more acceptably.  The description of her as an Arabian gives the picture an acceptable orientalist subject matter.

Roussel, Study from the nude, woman asleep (1890)

Whistler and Roussel often worked together and and spoke French to each other.  They collaborated particularly closely when they started to explore lithography and Roussel became a very influential print maker, encouraged by Whistler.  This lithograph by Roussel is also very likely Hetty Pettigrew and she is even posed on the same couch as in Whistler's The Arabian.

Roussel Nude from the back (1906) (Hetty Pettigrew)

Roussel, Study from the nude of a girl lying down (1890) ( Hetty Pettigrew)

Roussel, The Alcove (1906) (Hetty Pettigrew)

Although Whistler was known to have affairs with his models it was Roussel who took Hetty as his mistress, however, despite being married to Frances, who he had wed in 1880.  Hetty was twenty three years younger than Frances and in 1900 she bore Roussel a child, Iris.  However, when Roussel's wife Frances died in 1914, rather than marrying Hetty, he married Ethel, the widow of the Scottish watercolourist and orientalist painter, Arthur Melville.  Hetty never posed for Roussel again and Roussel left London to live in St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex with his second wife.

Chiaroscuro, A Profile, the Golden Scarf (1900) (Hetty Pettigrew)

When Roussel exhibited The Reading Girl in 1887 its contemporary subject matter caused ructions.  In fact it may have been a factor in him not exhibiting it at the Royal Academy but, instead, at The New English Art Club exhibition.  The Academy may well have had reservations about a contemporary nude with no classical or historical subject matter.  The critics were unkind.  This  picture "of which we feel inclined to speak in terms of severe depreciation, if only because of its wantonness in taking a beautiful subject and making it all at once odious and ugly.” said one. "Our imagination fails to conceive any adequate reason for a picture of this sort. It is realism of the worst kind, the artist’s eye seeing only the vulgar outside of his model, and reproducing that callously and brutally. No human being, we should imagine, could take any pleasure in such a picture as this; it is a degradation of Art.” wrote the art critic of The Spectator at the time.

Whistler, The little nude model, reading (1889)

It's actually a wonderful painting with Hetty's pale body glowing against the almost black background.  Only the kimono (a reflection of both Whistler and Roussel's interest in Japanese art ) gives any colour to the painting.  Whistler called Roussel's painting "an extraordinary picture" and later produced his own version of the subject in a lithograph (above).

Girl in a Blue Dress (1891)  by Philp Wilson Steer (Rose Pettigrew)

Rose Pettigrew, the youngest of the Pettigrew models (she was one of thirteen children) modelled for British impressionist Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) at the beginning of his career.

Philip Wilson Steer, Self portrait with model (1894) (Rose Pettigrew)

Steer, The Japanese Gown (1894) (Rose Pettigrew)

Rose charged him a lot less than their usual half a guinea a day as she felt sorry for the struggling artist.  She modelled for him for eight years and fell in love with him, although the relationship came to nothing and Steer never married.

Whistler, Flesh colour and silver: the card players (1898)

For a time Rose was Whistler's principal model, posing for him five days a week and she became great friends with Whistler's wife Beatrice.  She is almost certainly the naked girl on the left in Whistler's picture Flesh colour and silver and Whistler did a famous series of her holding a baby (probably one of her nieces).  In 1896 Rose married one Harry Waldo Warner and retired from modelling.  She wrote her memoirs in 1947.

JW Godward, Lily (1888) (Lily Pettigrew)

Rose thought that her sister Lily was the most beautiful of the three of them with her "beautiful, curly red gold hair, violet eyes, a beautiful mouth, classic nose and beautifully shaped face, long neck, well set and a most exquisite figure."

JW Godward, A Pompeian Bath (1890) (Lily Pettigrew)

JW Godward, Clymene ((1891) (Lily Pettigrew)

Although JW Godward painted both Hetty and Rose it was Lily who was most often to be found as a model for his paintings.  Godward mainly used black haired models to get an authentic Mediterranean look but Lily's golden locks are quite distinctive in  his output.

Whistler,  Grey and Silver: La Petite Souris (1897)  Lily Pettigrew

Whistler, Nude with Red Hair ( 1893)

It is also very likely that the model in Whistler's 1893 pastel Nude with Red hair was Lily.  Lily was as mercurial as her sisters. Edward Burne-Jones wrote to Whistler in 1887: "My dear Whistler, do you by any chance know the address of Lillie Pettigrew, who has left me stranded in the middle of work & disappeared, for which if there were justice in England she should be boiled alive..." 

Sambourne, Hetty Pettigrew

It is interesting to see how the same models are depicted by different artists but we are lucky in the case of Lily and Hetty Pettigrew in that they posed for photographs by Edward Linley Sambourne, so we can see how they looked in reality.  This profile shot of Hetty is recognisably the same girl as in Roussel's painting.

Sambourne, Hetty Pettigrew

Sambourne (1844-1910) was an illustrator, cartoonist and amateur photographer.  He worked for Punch as a staff member from 1871, becoming principal cartoonist in 1901.  He used his photographs as source material for his illustrations and cartoons as he was not a trained artist and preferred to have photographic sources than draw from life or imagination.  Gradually his photography became an obsession, much to the annoyance of his wife, who lost one of the house bathrooms to be a dark room and who had to constantly put up with him taking down the curtains to get more light into the drawing room where he shot his photographs.

Sambourne, Hetty and Lily Pettigrew (1891)

He would later take pictures of women on the streets with a hidden camera and these shots have became a valuable resource for researchers of ordinary dress of the time, although as all the pictures were of attractive girls his motivation was definitely not to preserve costume information for posterity.  Photography continued to run in the family, as he was Lord Snowden's great grandfather and was the great-great grandfather of furniture designer Viscount Linley.  In these shots taken in August 1891, we have Hetty (left) and the red-headed Lily on the right.

 Sambourne, Hetty (left) and Lily (right) Pettigrew (1891)

Sambourne often photographed his models naked when shooting source pictures for his illustrations and added clothes at the drawing stage. He had no studio of his own, just a corner of his drawing room and so would often visit his friend, the artist Edwin Austin Abbey, to use his large studio for his nude photography.  This also kept the practice hidden from his wife who didn't find out about these sessions until after his death.

Sambourne, Lily (left) and Hetty (right) Pettigrew (1891)

Taken at the 54 Bedford Gardens house of Abbey, here we have Hetty and Lily disporting themselves in front of one of Abbey's draped paintings.  Thanks to Sambourne's meticulous record keeping we know that these shots were taken on 22nd August 1891.

Sambourne, Lily (left) and Hetty (right) Pettigrew (1891) 

Sambourne, Hetty (left) and Lily (right) Pettigrew (1891)

These shots of them present 21 year old Lily and 23 year old Hetty in all their glory and their much attested sense of mischief is palpable.  These photographs are in complete contrast to the cool introspection of Roussel's painting but give us an enticing glimpse of the real women behind the painted images.

Sambourne, Helly Pettigrew (5th August 1891)

Sambourne, Lily Pettigrew (1889)

Finally. we have these two shots of Hetty and Lily individually.   More on Sambourne soon.


  1. That Roussel picture is gorgeous - I saw it ages ago in the Tate (when Bankside was a glint in Nicolas Serota's eye). Another excellent post

  2. Thanks for this posting!