Friday, December 18, 2020


The war over the relationship between photography and painting has raged for 150 years. 

Philosophers have battled with art critics.  Artists have feuded with other artists.  Photographers have clashed with art directors.  Are the two art forms comparable?  How heavily may a painter rely on photographs? Thousands of pages have nearly exhausted the subject, but one important perspective has been neglected: wives who pose nude for their husbands.

In her 1933 divorce proceedings against illustrator Everett Shinn, Gertrude McManus Shinn explained the difference between painting and photography to Judge Leonard Nickerson:     

I didn’t mind posing for my husband in the nude in his studio, even holding poses for two hours at a stretch.... But when my husband insisted that I also pose in the nude while he brought out a pocket camera I was deeply embarrassed and hurt.

It was altogether unfair and cruel. I simply can’t bear to go on with life if it means living with him.
She then broke down in tears.

This distinction between painting and photography was equally obvious to other wives in the community.  After Gertrude's tearful testimony, wives rallied around her and expressed their opinions in the local press.  They said Gertrude was “absolutely right" and “snapshots are horrid." They believed that unlike photography, painting transformed the facts "underneath the mystery of her clothes" in a way that freed her from shame. 

Professional thinkers may see many shades of gray, but for the wives of Westport it was black and white: 

One of Mrs. Shinn's friends said,

Of course Mrs. Shinn is right. Husbands of pretty women are always so stupid about failing to understand why their wives volunteer to pose in the altogether for artists but won’t allow anyone, even their own husbands, to snapshot them that way. 

She knows that the artist will idealize her, painting out or in as the case may be, such sins of commission or omission as nature perpetrated in her case, so that when the finished canvas is exhibited, there she stands naked and unashamed, in the interest of art, because, all faults being corrected, she sees nothing to be ashamed of. 

The snapshot tells the unvarnished, naked truth, which is simply horrid. How could Mrs. Shinn be sure that her husband, with that dumb, masculine honesty that is the despair of all smart women, would not take out that little picture and show it to a group of devoutly admiring men looking at the painting, and spoil everything?

It's not clear whether Gertrude fully persuaded Judge Nickerson about the aesthetic differences between paintings and photography, but he felt the differences were substantial enough to grant her request for a divorce.


AviPBN said...

A great story, thank you for sharing. The first thing that came to mind is the media portrayal of the two mediums. When an artist draws a woman, it’s a sincere form of respect, of beauty. Yet the man with a camera is usually depicted as a creep, a watcher, removed from the woman.

I started as a photographer of les nudes, and can understand where Shinn came from, and agree to a certain extent. Though a good photographer can still ally the spirit of someone, it’s incomparable at that level.

MORAN said...

Are there any photos of Gertrude?

Ignacio Noé said...

Really interesting.

Richard said...

I’m guessing the photography was merely a subtext for the courts.

Shinn was a notorious philanderer, and his three divorces were all initiated by his wives from what I can tell. The novel loosely based on his life tells the story of how he was caught by a wife sleeping with a friends daughter (a sixteen year old). Given how much he showed up in the tabloids, it’s likely that his dalliances would have been well known to the courts.

It’s my impression that at the time courts would often cover up infidelity in divorce courts if there was sufficient cause for the divorce without it.

David Apatoff said...

AviPBN-- I'm sure the motives of painters can be just as unscrupulous as the motives of photographers, but at least painters generally have to pay dues.

MORAN-- I had the same question. I couldn't find any. How about others? I'd love to see her face.

Ignacio Noe-- Many thanks!

Richard-- Yes, the story gets pretty complicated. The way Shinn explained it, other husbands had many mistresses on the side and wives learned to avert their eyes, but as a quaker he couldn't do that. He married his mistress and let go of his (previous) wife. Seems pretty cold blooded to me, but the quotes from his wives (including Gertrude) suggested that they knew they were in for a rough ride with Shinn. They expected abuse from this "famous artist," although I think they ended up with more abuse than anticipated.

Richard said...

> How about others? may have some articles from the period, but I’ve used up my free trial