The model for this picture, Gabriella is a cook in a hospital, but she had always desired to do something artistic. When I first saw her I immediately thought of a woman from La Belle Epoque, she looked as if she had stepped out of Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre; in fact with her crow black hair she reminded me of Lautrec’s Gitane (The Gypsy). However with her strong build I thought her perfect for Rops’ La Dame au Cochon.
For a small country Belgium has produced a lot of notable artists, Félicien Rops is not one of the best known, but he was extraordinarily popular and respected in Paris by many of the most famous artists and writers of his age. A Symbolist, he painted women who are not the polite salon nudes beloved of Academy painters and their bourgeois clientele, his are strange fetishistic femmes-fatales, often clothed, but only to enhance their nakedness; what is more his works are often witty or semi-serious, or as the Italians would say frizzante. Nakedness as he portrayed it meant sex, and sex could be dangerous – to reputations and to life itself.
Rops led a life close to the edge, but seems to have survived owing to his cleverness and brilliant personality – and luck. But rather like Wilde, if only he had put less energy into his life and more into his art, perhaps he would have become better known – or perhaps he was just less lucky than he thought. Maybe now that we have become accustomed to the dazzling light of the superstars we can take pleasure in the lesser lights, men like Rops.
Perhaps more than any other model in this series Gabriella represents the idea of an uncommon beauty, the beauty of a woman no longer young, no longer slim, but beautiful all the same. “How fat I am!” she confided to me sotto voce when I showed her the first Polaroid,” Patrick please, can’t you take off a few pounds?” Perhaps I did a little, but really only a touch to make her happy, but if I had refused surely she would have been beautiful just the same?
It is my habit to ask the subjects of my pictures to bring something of their own to the set – Gabriella brought her dog! This proved to be a mistake as he was too young and frisky and had to be ushered out before he wrecked the studio. It was Gabriella herself who suggested the substitute – the rooster, symbol of her home town, Forlì. Rooster is galét in Romagna dialect – very apt for a woman I imagined stepping out of the Moulin de la Galette.
Afterword This picture was destined for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine in July 2005. Sadly the bombers struck the London Underground the week before publication and so the picture was moved to the inside – and the size of a postage stamp.
Make-up: Simonetta Baletti of Art and Make-up
You can watch an entertaining behind the scenes video by Paolo Ganzi of the shoot here