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Lay for the Day 8th June

1891: Audrey Munson is born in New York City. In 1906 she was spotted on the street by a portrait photographer who asked to make some pictures of her. Over the next ten years she became the most popular artist’s model in the United States.
Her face and (usually naked) form became an everyday sight all over the country as she modelled for hundreds of civic art projects, as well as advertisements, magazine covers and even films. (She appeared nude in a film called Inspiration in 1915, said to be the first of cinema’s leading ladies to do so.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reckoned it had thirty works in its collection representing her.
The height of her fame came with the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where 70 per cent of the sculptures gracing the pavilions, as well as the female figures in thousands of square feet of murals, were Audrey Munson. She was nicknamed “The Exposition Girl”.
The sculpture on the right is a Star Maiden, created by A. Sterling Calder, the father of Alexander Calder (see Lay for the Day, 22nd July). Ninety-five of these maidens surrounded the Court of the Universe at the Exposition.
Elizabeth Gannis, the president of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, opined: “This young woman ought to be ashamed of herself. Maybe she has perfection, as the sculptors call it, of features and figure. That doesn’t give her license to parade her charms to the general public.”
Audrey Munson was confined to a psychiatric hospital at the age of 39, where she remained for 65 years. She died in 1996 at the age of 105, unnoticed by the American public, many of whom still look at her younger self every day.


Older Models

“The preponderance of images of the great goddess,”
he thought as the Raleigh shuddered between his legs
over potholes, “surely shows the matriarchal nature
of earlier cultures, from the protuberant
neolithic Venus to the many-dugged Diana
of Ephesus” – as on his unceremonious
and thoughtful way, and down upon his summer-freckled crown,
exuberantly tilted on abundant limbs,
the plenty of Helena, Eva and Sophie,
of Cindy and Elle and of Claudia shone.

John Gibbens

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar