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Dangerous ties: 7 high-profile sex scandals in painting

Passions often run high in the world of art. Many artists are temperamental and emotional, and various fans and critics closely watch their every move, almost leaving them no privacy. Sexual relationships are subject of heated discussions, any model turns into a mistress in the eyes of laymen, and even an ordinary portrait can become a reason for scandal.
Dangerous ties: 7 high-profile sex scandals in painting

John Singer Sargent. The Cunning Strap

John Singer Sargent lived a completely happy life until 1884. Critics treated him with affection, customers lined up for portraits by him. The crack of a thunder struck when he presented a portrait of "Madame X" at the Paris Salon.

Virginie Gautreau did not have a high status in Parisian society, but she was so beautiful that some

Virginie Gautreau did not have a high status in Parisian society, but she was so beautiful that some artists just pursued her to cajole her into posing for them. When Sargent asked Virginie to paint her portrait, she favourably agreed. Both the artist and the model pursued similar goals: both of them were expatriates and understood how difficult it was to make one’s way in Paris. Sargent hoped this canvas would bring him more popularity, and Madame Gautreau wanted to find the entrance to the great world at last. Thirty years later, when he was selling the portrait to the Metropolitan Museum, the artist stated that he considered Madame X his best picture.

But the visitors of the Salon did not agree with him. Despite the mysterious name, the identity of the model left no doubt. Most critics and spectators were shocked about the carelessly lowered shoulder strap on the Madame Gautreau’s dress (later the artist re-painted this detail to return the strap to its proper place). In combination with self-confidence and sexual attraction of a woman, this tiny nuance disconcerted bashful visitors.

Because of "Madame X" Sargent almost lost his career and had to leave Paris. Madame Gautreau jeopardized her status in society, and after a while she almost ceased to appear in public.

Artemisia Gentileschi. Double treachery

Italy of the 17th century frowned upon paintresses. They were not taken seriously, people treated them with prejudice and disdain. They were not allowed to sign contracts for independent work, they couldn’t even buy paint. Women could easily be put in prison for depicting a naked male body. Despite all these cruel restrictions, Artemisia Gentileschi managed to "make a name" in the world of painting, although her career began with a personal tragedy and shame.

When Artemisia was 17 years old, she was raped by the Florentine artist Agostino Tassi, who taught her painting. At that time, it was a shame not only for the girl herself, but also for her entire family, so Gentileschi was forced to share a bed with her rapist for a year, hoping that he would marry her. Later, during the trial, it turned out that Tassi could not do this, even if he wanted to, because he was already married. They also found out that Agostino had been multiply accused of rape before.
During the seven months of the trial, Artemisia passed through hell: she was tortured to confirm the charge, and subjected to a public gynaecological examination. Her father Orazio lodged the claim, because he understood that this shameful story would put an end to his career, if he did not force the rapist to marry his daughter. But, as it was said above, it was impossible. As a result, Artemisia remained betrayed by both her "fiancé" and her father, publicly humiliated and disgraced. In between sessions, she would paint one of her most powerful paintings, in which Judith dispassionately cuts off Holofern’s head.

Despite everything, Artemisia Gentileschi lived a rather happy and full life. She still managed to achieve recognition, and she even became a member of the Florence Academy of Painting, which equalled her rights with those of men artists. However, the theme of violence and bloody revenge would remain the core motif of her work.
  • Aubrey Beardsley
  • Oscar Wilde

Aubrey Beardsley. A man is known by his friends

Aubrey Beardsley lived only 25 years, but he had quite enough time to become famous. He was known not only for his virtuosic engravings, but also for a lot of extravagant tricks. It is worth mentioning that the history of his whole family was, to put it mildly, rather unusual (see the details in the artist’s biography). But the biggest scandal in the life of Beardsley was caused by his "relationship" with the disgraced Oscar Wilde.

On April 5, 1895, the writer has been detained on charges of homosexuality. Newspaper headlines stated: "Oscar Wilde was arrested: he had a yellow book with him". Although it was just a novel in a yellow cover, the association was unambiguous: first of all, most readers thought about the Yellow Book magazine edited by Beardsley. Indignant townsmen surrounded the publisher’s office and stoned the windows.
Aubrey Beardsley. The climax
The climax
1893, 17.7×12.7 cm
Shortly before, Beardsley had created illustrations for Wilde’s "Salome" to his cost. Certainly, the artist was immediately labelled as the writer’s lover, although Beardsley’s name was never called during the trial. They began to examine his work meticulously, trying to find "indecent" overtones in them, and, finally, he lost his job in the Yellow Book.

Oskar Kokoschka. The Puppet Master

Alma Mahler was Oskar’s everything. It was a crazy, desperate, all-consuming passion that inspired and frightened at the same time. Kokoschka wrote hundreds of letters to Alma and painted her relentlessly. Soon after he painted his first real masterpiece, "The Bride of the Wind", the famous Viennese beauty left him, frightened by his pressure and strength of his senses. Trying to drown the painful memories, Kokoschka went to fight in the First World War. The artist was seriously wounded, captured, and he miraculously survived … But he could not forget Alma.

In 1919, Oskar commissioned the Munich artist Hermina Moos to make a copy of his ex-lover, a rag doll. The artist bought dresses and underwear for his new Alma, and suffered, pulling on stockings on the stuffed legs. The doll became Kokoschka’s constant companion at social events in Vienna: it sat next to him in an opera box, he fed it and talked with it. They said he even shared his bed with it. In his essay "Fetish", the artist would later write that the doll disappointed him, and at the end it began to annoy him. During one of the parties, he cut off her head and finally got rid of it.
  • Hermina Moos and her creature
  • Alma Mahler
Oskar Kokoschka has lived almost 94 years; one day he met a woman who became his helpmate for long 40 years. This love was completely different, quiet and gentle.
Andrew Wyeth. Braids (from the series "Helga")
1979, 41.9×52.1 cm

Andrew Wyeth. The muse next door

In 1986, Andrew Wyeth demostrated a series of paintings under the general title "Helga". The subject of these canvases, both dressed and naked, had something alien to the American eye, which made her inexpressibly attractive. Once Wyeth opened his heart and recalled his acquaintance with Helga Testorf, who lived next door: "I could not get off my head this image of the cheeky Prussian face with wide-set eyes framed by blond hair".
When the artist’s wife Betsy first saw these pictures, she was deeply hurt. Their relationship was far from ideal. Betsy became the manager of Wyeth, sold his paintings, catalogued them … Eventually, the artist stated that he began to feel like "a subject of purchase and sale", so he spent more and more time at work. Then Helga appeared. He painted her for 15 years, and Betsy had to carry the can against reporters. She briefly replied their questions about Helga, "This is love." And Wyeth said to his friends, "The artist must not marry, as the novel ends where the marriage begins."

However, the absence of marriage bonds did not protect the relationship between Andrew and Helga from collapse. At some point, she no longer inspired him. After their parting, the woman fell into depression, Wyeth paid for her treatment and lived with her from time to time. Betsy, who claimed that "art is more important than relationship," almost did not see her husband anymore. The artist found new muses. Wyeth’s friend William Phelps once said, "Andrew sets his heart upon people, he feels a warm feeling for them. But I doubt that he loves them."
See also: Love story in pictures: Egon Schiele and Wally Neuzil: "… In Neulengbach, Schiele even landed in jail. The police descended on his studio for a girl who had run away from home and sought shelter for the night at Egon and Wally’s. In the studio, the police seized some pictures, too scandalous by the standards of those days, portraying nude
The nude is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus (“naked, bare”) and is cognate with the French nudité (“nudity”). Read more
Neuzil and other models. The painter was incriminated distribution of obscene images. Throughout the trial process, Schiele spent three weeks in prison. During those days, Wally was doing her best to keep his spirit up, bringing him food and supplies for painting."

Orest Kiprensky. Was there a girl?

The rise of Orest Kiprensky was swift and bright, and the fall was bitter and painful. For several years, the artist lived in Rome, and this was the peak of his career then. He was a magnificent portraitist, but he always dreamed of painting historical canvases. Kiprensky suffered from the fact that he could not attain the skill of Raphael, and envied the glory of his contemporaries. After the decline in popularity, the artist began to drink, and then there were two events at once, which cast a shadow on his reputation both in Italy, and in his homeland.

In 1823, when Kiprensky came back to Russia, he was met without usual enthusiasm. The St. Petersburg has got the rumours that the model he lived with was found murdered in his Roman workshop. She was allegedly wrapped in a canvas, doused with turpentine and set on fire. Kiprensky insisted that the woman was killed by his servant. None of the biographers of the artist can say with certainty what really happened then.
Kiprensky was also talked to have by no means paternal feelings for the 10-year-old daughter of the mentioned model. Here different art critics express different opinions. According to one version, little Mariuccia in fact was a daughter of the murdered woman. According to another one, the girl was brought to the artist’s studio as a model by her mother, unfamiliar to Kiprensky before. He decided to make Mariuccia his apprentice and paid the woman for her official refusal from her daughter. Whatever it was, years later Kiprensky returned to Italy, found Mariuccia and married her. But their marriage was short-lived: the artist died several months later.

Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Judgment

The personal life of Leonardo da Vinci has always been a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. The artist

The personal life of Leonardo da Vinci has always been a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. The artist not only encrypted all his notes, but also carefully kept close to the vest his love relationship. Certainly, he still could not avoid rumours. It was rumoured that he had an affair with Cecilia Gallerani, who became the subject of the portrait named "Lady with an Ermine". There were also lots of gossip and conjecture about the master’s relationship with his disciple Salai, whom he drew naked.

But the most serious scandal in the life of da Vinci happened when he was 24 years old. In an anonymous denunciation, the artist and three of his friends were accused of "active sodomy". An unknown sender of the letter claimed that the young people raped the 17-year-old model Jacopo Saltarelli. All four of them were sent to prison, where they spent two months. Leonardo never talked about this episode, nor wrote about it in his diaries, but one can imagine how scared he was: for such a serious crime he could readily be fried on fire!

The trial acquitted the young people, since the prosecution could not produce any evidence of rape. After the prison, da Vinci kept a low profile for several years. Probably, despite the acquittal, the whole story still cast an imputation on his character and affected a number of his orders. Leonardo remained in the shade until he went to Milan to work at the court of Ludovico Sforza.
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Photo sources: 1995−,,,

Cover illustration: a detail of the picture "Susanna and the Elders" by Artemisia Gentileschi.