The secret lives of the great artists' lovers

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Kathryn Hughes delights in a new book that tells the colourful stories of the lovers-cum-models of the great painters.

For as long as man has painted, he (and it usually is a he) has painted his lovers. Look at any of the great works of Western art and, chances are, you will find a mistress, girlfriend, wife or prostitute centre stage.

They may not announce themselves as such, going under the discreet title of Woman Sewing, Girls Bathing or simply Repose. But they’re there all right, these soul mates and play mates, lighting up the canvas with a particular kind of intimacy.

You can see this special relationship at work in Edouard Manet’s The Surprised Nymph (1861). Nominally this is a piece of respectable classical art – very different from the shocking Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, a contemporary picnic scene with a naked woman, which he was to produce just a few years later. Here, the luscious nudity of the central figure is respectably covered by the fig leaf of antiquity. This isn’t soft porn, the painting seems to say, it’s history.

Much of the shimmering erotic quality of the painting, though, arises from the fact that Manet was painting his long-time mistress. Initially, Suzanne Leenhoff had been employed as a piano teacher for Edouard and his brother in the well-heeled Manet family’s home in Paris. But soon the pretty Dutchwoman seemed to become Edouard’s lover, and a baby boy born in 1852 was assumed to be his....

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