David Bruce: The Funniest People in Art — Models, Money

Models

• Mary Cassatt occasionally ran into model trouble. Early in her career, she tried to paint her father, but he kept falling asleep while posing and ruined the pose. She also tried to paint the Cassatt family’s maid, Mrs. Currey, who quit before the portrait was finished. Later, in Seville, Spain, her models grew tired because Ms. Cassatt spent so many hours painting them. Ms. Cassatt even wrote that one of her models asked her “if the people who pose for me live long.” And in the latter part of her career, people criticized her models because they were not good looking. Ms. Cassatt once wrote a letter defending her models against this kind of criticism: “So you think my models are not worthy of their clothes? You find their types coarse. I know that is an American newspaper criticism. Everyone has their conception of beauty. I confess I love health and strength.”

• As a young man, comedian Zero Mostel attended City College of New York, where most students were Jewish and which was known as a proletarian Harvard. One course he took was “life drawing,” which meant drawing and painting the nude model, a burlesque stripper named Honey Bee Keller. When she dropped her kimono, Mr. Mostel would emit a wolf whistle that startled the students but did not faze Ms. Keller, who was used to it in her line of work. While painting, Mr. Mostel continually made jokes, making other students laugh. Once, Mr. Mostel caused Honey Bee Keller to laugh so much that she fell off her stand and into the arms of a professor.

• Artist Edgar Degas created realistic nudes of women, showing the imperfections of the individual’s body rather than showing an idealized form. Asked why some of the nude women in his paintings were so ugly, Mr. Degas replied that women — in general — are ugly.

Money

• Nineteenth-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast was fearless. He opposed William Marcy Tweedy — a corrupt New York politician known as “Boss” Tweedy. The Tweedy Ring of corrupt politicians got its money from kickbacks from contractors. For example, a contractor might be able to do a particular job for $30,000, but it would bid $100,000. Boss Tweedy would make sure that particular contractor got the job, and in return the contractor would do the job for $30,000, keep $5,000 as profit for himself, and give Boss Tweedy the remaining $65,000. Boss Tweedy and his cronies kept themselves in office by giving recent immigrants citizenship, jobs, and other favors in return for their votes. (In 1868, Boss Tweedy bought so many votes and had so many people vote multiple times for him that the number of votes cast was greater than the number of voters!) However, although the immigrants were illiterate, they could easily understand the critical cartoons that Mr. Nast drew about the corrupt Tweedy Ring, and this worried Boss Tweedy so much that he attempted to bribe Mr. Nast. A banker visited Mr. Nast one day and told him that a group of wealthy men who admired him wanted to give him $100,000 so he could go to Europe and study art instead of staying in New York and drawing political cartoons. Mr. Nast was suspicious, so he asked if the offer of money could be raised to $200,000. The banker replied that it could. Mr. Nast then asked if the offer could be raised to $500,000. The banker replied, “You can get five hundred thousand dollars in gold to drop this Ring business and get out of the country.” Knowing that Boss Tweedy was behind the offer to go to Europe and study art, Mr. Nast said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll do it. I made up my mind a long time ago to put some of those fellows behind bars, and I’m going to put them there.” Mr. Nast did help bring down the Tweedy Ring.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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