A Mysterious Man of Nineteenth-Century Paris cover

A Mysterious Man of Nineteenth-Century Paris

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Research into a distinctive sitter formerly identified as an “Indian man” reveals new clues to his identity.
Post by Breanne Bradley; 5 minute read.
Cover image: Left: Nude Study of an Old Man (detail), about 1878–79, Georges Seurat. Graphite, 19 1/16 x 11 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014.11. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. Right: Nude Study of an Old Man, about 1878–79, Émile-Jules Pichot. Charcoal and powdered vine charcoal, 18 5/16 × 16 15/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016.81. Gift of David Leventhal in honor of Lee Hendrix
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A Mysterious Man of Nineteenth-Century Paris

From my first days as a member of the Drawings Department at the Getty Museum, I found myself enamored by the subject of two artworks in the collection. The drawings—Nude Study of an Old Man by Georges Seurat and Nude Study of an Old Man by Émile-Jules Pichot—seem to portray the very same model.

Art historian Emily R. Anderson was equally intrigued by Seurat’s drawing, and wrote about the sitter’s mysterious identity in 2014. The drawing of the same subject by Pichot was subsequently donated to the museum by David Leventhal in honor of Lee Hendrix, the curator who acquired the Seurat. I have come to refer to this model as the “mystery man” because he remains unknown, but recent research has led me to reconsider his identity.

Life Drawing Class

Since the acquisition of the Seurat and Pichot drawings, three further representations of the same model in other collections have come to light. In each artwork, the model is depicted with long hair tied into a topknot and a long ashy beard. Another shared characteristic is the model’s frail frame, which differs greatly from the expected muscular and youthful body type typically seen in life drawing classes.

A Brazilian artist named José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior featured this model in the painting Study of a Male Nude, painted about 1877 to 1882, now at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. Getty curator Emily Beeny came across Almeida Júnior’s painting on a recent visit to the museum.

A much larger painting by Léon Bonnat of the biblical figure Job clearly represents the same model and was completed in 1880. Could these depictions all derive from the use (and re-use) of the same favored life model, a common practice even today?

Job, 1880, Leon Bonnat. Oil on canvas, 63 3/8 x 50 3/4 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A drawing in a private collection in Paris, clearly of the same man, supports the idea that this character was a model in a figure drawing class. In the Paris drawing, the model is placed on a stool and his legs rest upon two steps, revealing his emaciated stomach. We return to his physical frame as the shared characteristic. The face of the model for Almeida Júnior’s Study of a Male Nude is not discernable, but his body is extremely similar to that in Seurat’s, Bonnat’s, and Pichot’s drawings. It is difficult to distinguish one stool from another, but the model in Almeida Júnior’s painting reveals a similar height and posture to the figure in the works mentioned above.

École des Beaux-Arts

What do these artists all have in common, and where could such a figure drawing class have taken place? The answer: L’École des Beaux-Arts, an acclaimed academic institution in Paris that trained a large number of well-known painters, sculptors, and architects.

These included, in the later nineteenth century, Seurat, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as less well-known figures such as Pichot, Bonnat, and Almeida Júnior.

In our departmental efforts to uncover the name of this mystery man, who likely posed during life classes at the École, we consulted the finding aid for the archives there—but alas, records of models for figure drawing classes only begin in 1901, about 20 years after the creation of Pichot and Seurat’s drawings.

There are records that show Seurat’s enrollment in the École from February 1878 to March 1879. Pichot, a lesser-known artist, was a student of Alexander Cabanel, a painter who opened his studio at the École in January of 1864. Seurat was a student of Henri Lehmann, a professor at the École beginning in October 1875.

And in 1876, shortly before Pichot and Seurat’s enrollment at the École, the Brazilian artist Almeida Júnior studied at the École as well, returning to Brazil in 1882. Bonnat was a tenured painting teacher during Seurat and Pichot’s time at the École, where he became professor in 1882 and director in 1905.

Study of a Male Nude, 1877–82, José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior. Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. Purchased by the Government of the State of São Paulo. Photo: Emily Beeny

An Indian Man?

The model in Seurat’s drawing has long been described as of Indian descent, and he has previously also been described as a Hindu beggar due to his long beard, topknot, and thin frame. Others have proposed that he could have been a Sikh, or an ascetic. Yet there are several clues that suggest this model was not Indian at all, let alone a beggar, a Sikh, or a religious ascetic.

Philip Deslippe, a scholar of religious practice in Asia, has noted that it is extremely unlikely that a Sikh would have exposed his hair and removed his turban in a public setting. If he were Sikh, the model would have had a kara, a metal bracelet worn on the right arm by all initiated Sikhs.

He would also have worn a kanga, or comb, beneath his topknot. Neither element is visible in these representations. Further, how and where would the École artists have encountered a Sikh in Paris? It would have been particularly unlikely after the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s, which dissolved the Sikh Empire and raised tensions between Europe and the former Sikh Empire.

After considering all this, I began to wonder if the model couldn’t instead have been a European man who grew out his beard and hair for figure drawing classes. Nineteenth-century Europeans’ fascination with the exoticother” is evident in the work of artists such as Paul Gauguin, but ethnic and racial ambiguities have always been an unavoidable reality.

The demand for subjects with emaciated figures, such as Saint Jerome or Job, would have made such a model desirable for these artists. The goal of a figure drawing class is to further the student’s understanding of form, specifically the proportions of the human body and the way it interacts with the space it occupies.

Detail of Georges Seurat’s Nude Study of an Old Man showing the finely rendered clavicle

This individual’s frame in this case made him an ideal subject for examining the various crevices and protrusions of human anatomy, and it is possible that his hair was tied up to expose his upper back. This is most evident in Seurat’s depiction of the model.

As a result of my research into these other possible representations of our “mystery model,” the titles of both Seurat’s and Pichot’s artworks have been officially changed, from An Indian Man and Nude Study of an Indian Man, respectively, to simply Nude Study of an Old Man.

I’m hopeful that with these recent discoveries, we are one step closer to deciphering the identity of this mysterious character, who existed as a man of many faces, whether it be Job, an “Indian man,” or simply himself, whoever he was.

If this man was a frequent model, it is probable that there are more artworks that feature him as the subject, even if it is unlikely that we will ever know his name.

This new consideration of the subject of Seurat’s and Pichot’s artworks is a reminder to constantly ask questions and consider new contexts. Personally, I have come to appreciate this model just as the artists and teachers of the École did. He has reminded me of a drawing’s ability to sometimes reveal more about its artist and its viewers than it does about the subject itself.