American Venus: The Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson Model and Muse

by Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer

Published by Balcony Press

144 pages, 1999


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The Muse and Miss Munson

Reviewed by Sienna Powers

 

You know her face. She embodies "Peace" at New York's Appellate Court House and the "Angels" in the stained glass window at the Church of Ascension in New York City. Her face peers out from the pediments at the entrance to New York's Frick Collection and she languishes on the memorial to Isa and Isidor Strauss in New York's Strauss Park. Strikingly, she posed for all of the female figures on the massive monument to the Battleship Maine in Columbus Circle and she still overlooks the city of New York and all of its boroughs in the 20-foot high "Civic Fame" at the top of the Municipal Building in Manhattan. And more. So many more. More, perhaps, than are even known.

One of the early delights in grazing through American Venus: The Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson Model and Muse is in seeing the influence Munson had on turn-of-the-century American sculpture. The book reports on the life of this remarkable woman and includes many photos -- both contemporary and archival -- of both the woman herself and a good number of the works she posed for. American Venus is an astonishing book. Authors Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer have done a very good job at all levels. The work is well researched and well documented. Fortunately, Rozas and Bourne Gottehrer also knew what to do with all of that research. As they write in their introduction when describing the end of their research:

Finally, when all the pieces of paper, photos, files, and memorabilia were placed together, matched in time, they emerged as pieces of a puzzle. Hence, the many-faceted and sometimes fractured findings of Audrey's life are joined herein for the first time.

At the height of her fame, Audrey Munson's face -- and a lot of the rest of her -- were perhaps the best known in America. She spent her early years in Providence, Rhode Island where she dreamed of studying music and dance. When Audrey's parents divorced, Audrey's mother moved her teenage daughter to New York City. By her own account, it wasn't long before Audrey was "discovered."

Mother and I were walking downtown shopping. A man kept following me and annoying me, not by anything he said but by looking at me.... finally Mother stopped, turned to him and asked him what he wanted. He explained... that he was a photographer and said my face was one he longed to photograph. He asked mother if she would not bring me to his studio.... We went; he took many pictures. Then he called one day and asked if he might show them to an artist friend.... the artist then asked me to pose, and that was the beginning.

The year was 1906. The photographer was Ralph Draper. The artist was Hungarian born sculptor Isidor Konti,

Despite Katherine Munson's objections, it was also Konti who first persuaded the hesitant teenager to pose nude. Audrey was not yet 16 years old. The result -- a beautiful composition, the "Three Graces" which stood in the lobby of the elegant Hotel Astor. Audrey later referred to this work as "a souvenir of my Mother's consent."

Rozas and Bourne Gottehrer capture beautifully the spirit as well as the life of the celebrated model. Through their careful biography a beautifully rendered portrait emerges. We meet the young and powerful Audrey: the self-styled "Queen of the artists' studios." We follow her to the emerging film industry where she starred in four silent movies that juxtaposed nudity and modesty at a time when it wasn't easy to lump them together. Her involvement -- though unintentionally -- in a somewhat celebrated murder in 1919 fairly ruined her career. With work ever harder to find and Audrey's career in a complete tailspin, the former darling of the Beaux Arts began a slide that would eventually lead to madness -- or what passed for it at the beginning of the 20th century. Diagnosed with "mental blight" in 1931, Audrey was institutionalized at the age of 39. Audrey spent the rest of her life in the same state psychiatric facility. She died in 1996 at the age of 105.

American Venus is a fabulous celebration of Audrey Munson's life and her unique contribution to American art in the early part of the last century. As engrossing as any fiction, it seems like high time that the story of this fascinating woman should come to light. In the words of Rozas and Bourne Gottehrer, "If this book leads you to pause by a work of art for which she posed, then our purpose, and Audrey's muse, will have been well served." You can't help but think that Audrey would agree. | March 2000

 

Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.