Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) was an American painter, muralist and illustrator.  He trained first at the Pennsylvania Acadeny of Art before travelling, like many young artists of his generation to study in Paris under Carolus Duran and then Gerome at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  On his return to the United States he continued to paint but also taught at the Art Student’s League in New York. (He designed the logo for the League). He’s something of a transitional figure in that although he lived to see, and write about such modern developments as Abstract painting he remained true to the Classical ideals of his youth.

The following letter was written to his Mother while still studying in Paris and contains his justification for working from the nude.  Anyone who has attended life classes will at some point, I am sure have had to defend the practise to non artists. (is that the theme music for the Benny Hill show that I hear?)) and even though you may quibble with some of his observations I would say that broadly speaking his argument is hard to improve upon.  If reading this you feel he insists just a little too hard on the virtuous nature of the models that were available to him remember this: He is writing to his Mum!

[December 1862]

Dear Mother:

Your letter came today (misdirected). and while the first part of it is pleasant for me to read, the second, though it does not “offend” me, makes me sad to see how inveterate prejudices and false conceptions are. lt seems as if no one would ever understand that an artist`s models are tools like his palette and his easel equally indispensable to his work and of as little importance in his work and his life. You go to one extreme in imagining that the models must have something of the inspiration of the artist to give him the expressions and the poses that he desires, and to the other [extreme] in speaking of them as “dissolute women.“ They are simply hard-working, little-paid women who earn an honest living by one of the most fatiguing trades in the world, and those that know I believe to be ‘thoroughly virtuous but they have no more to do with the feeling of the artist than so many paintbrushes. What there may be of elevation of type,beauty of expression, or grace of pose in my drawings is absolutely and altogether my invention. The model is there to aid me in carrying out my conception, and to assure me that the bones and muscles in my figures are not wrongly placed—that is all. They are seldom very good looking and some of the most useful are positively plain. That they are pretty honest the terrible fatigue they undergo for two or three dollars a day should show pretty well. Even were they beautiful. their nudity would be far less seductive than an evening dress,  Do you suppose painting and drawing such easy things and so little absorbing that one can think of anything else while carrying them on? If the world could see the real thing, the absolute absorption in work and the agony of creation the common ideas on artists and their models would disappear.  Where I am working at anything serious and dificult, 1 haven’t a word to throw at a dog, and would absolutely forget that the model was human if it were it not that her fatigue and inability to hold still any longer reminds me that she is not a plaster cast. l know Mr. Watrous and do not believe the story you heard is true. Certainly I should have been as likely as anyone to have heard of it. Some artists have married models in N.Y. {not nude models, however), but because some men have made fools of themselves does it follow that others will? l believe many of the models to be perfectly honest and virtuous girls, but they are not ladies by birth or education. 1 have thought. you know me well enough to know that if I ever marry it will be to| a woman not inferior to my own friends in all that constitutes ladyhood.  But enough of all this. 1 believe in art and in its nobility and I believe that the nude human figure is the highest vehicle for the expression of high artistic thoughts, if the world does not know enough of art to understand this, I must suffer its misconstruction

I have finally decided to decline Dodd, Mead and Co.’s offer for another book. 1cannot do again what I have done on the Damozel in so short a time as they are willing to allow me without too great a strain, and to do anything less good now. or even not better, would be fatal. My decision may make it hard for me to get through the winter.but I believe it is right.I suppose you will have got your copy of the Damozel before this. 1 hope you will not like it less as you see more of it.

Your ever loving son.

Kenyon Cox