Of the millions of faces and bodies in New York City, only one is omnipresent. As a ghost, sculpted out of marble, cast in bronze or chiseled from copper, her gaze follows you across the city. Nameless and timelessly beautiful, she stands afront the New York Public Library, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, guarding the Manhattan Bridge and perched atop the Municipal Building as the largest statue of a woman in the city after Lady Liberty.
Her name was Audrey Munson. For decades after gracing Gilded Age New York as an artist’s model and muse, she was forgotten by history. Once lauded as the American Venus for her classically perfect figure and bravery to bare it in the name of art, she was eventually committed to an insane asylum and died unknown in 1996 at the age of 104. According to investigative reporter and author of her biography (“The Curse of Beauty”) James Bone, she was simultaneously America’s first supermodel and Hollywood’s first flameout case.
At the zenith of her career, Munson was praised for her ideal “Grecian” proportions, rendering her popular among neoclassicist sculptors. Her very appearance, paired with her willingness to brand herself as a sex symbol, inspired and launched many Beaux Arts-style sculptors and avant-garde painters. In his book, Bone reports that she is the “jeune fille américaine” referenced in one of Francis Picabia’s now-infamous paintings.
I first came across the name Audrey Munson through my work in digital content production at the Getty Research Institute this past summer and instantly became enamored with her story — or lack thereof. I found that Munson’s legacy is largely contingent upon the male artists whose works immortalized her likeness; in fact, her Wikipedia page is little more than a list of men for whom she posed and where their sculptures are mounted today.
For decades, she was billed as a harrowing cautionary tale of the supermodel-turned-nutcase and remembered for the scandals she created — her au naturel modeling, battles with mental health and controversial public image. For a spell a few years back, she gained temporary notoriety as the inspiration for online think pieces, blogs and even a podcast. Yet, she remained a fantasy trope, exploited this time around — not for her beauty and femininity, but for her unwarranted omission from public memory.
In reality, Munson was essential to the artists’ creative processes and actively determined the themes and emotions evoked in their art through her poses. It was her dramatic flair and artistic sensitivity that set Munson apart from other figure posers and made her one of the most sought-after nude models.
Though you won’t find her name in any feminist theory texts, Munson was also a proto-feminist in her day. Not only was she unapologetic in her nudity, but she also refused to wear corsets and high heels in her daily life. When she appeared in American cinema’s first non-pornographic nude scene, she became a pioneer in her confrontation of national prudishness.
“That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue…” she said.
The barriers women are still pushing against today were broken and spotlighted by Munson nearly a century ago; she authored a series of essays that critically examined the role of the model in the artistic process and called out the sexism and salary discrepancies she observed in the 1900s art world.
In 1922, Munson rebuffed sexual advances from a Broadway producer who promptly closed the play she was cast in — an incident bearing striking similarity to stories emerging from the #MeToo movement. From then on and without explanation, Munson struggled to find work and both her career and mental health deteriorated. By age 40, she was admitted to asylum and her narrative became forever tainted.
For someone who did so much for the advancement of the arts industry and for women’s liberation, Munson’s ultimate anonymity is endlessly dispiriting. She lived a life of glamour and admiration, but her fall from grace was so absolute she was virtually erased, buried in an unmarked grave at the end of her natural life.
Her story is a tragedy of circumstance; she embraced her own sexuality long before it was acceptable and history punished her for it. She lived a life representative of all the challenges women who are sexually free and untraditional face from society, but decades before these issues were topical or assimilated into popular discourse.
I imagine much of her life and career was lonely and distressing, plagued with endless sexist obstacles and devoid of support due to perceptions that her “promiscuity” was sinful. Her likeness may be littered across the country but it took nearly 100 years of gradual cultural shifts for us to be able to rediscover, discuss and regard her as a woman of audacity and valor rather than a self-aggrandizing object of physical perfection.
The most haunting part about Munson’s legacy is how swiftly and easily she was forgotten. According to Bone, a Gypsy fortune teller prophesied when Munson was a girl: “You shall be beloved and famous. But when you think that happiness is yours, its Dead Sea fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth.” She lived her life by these words, which proved eerily true in the end.
We weren’t ready for someone like her when she was alive, someone so daring and unrepentant that shock and affront were the primary reactions she drew. But now, her story must be retold and Audrey Munson deserves to be a household name — finally a fitting destiny for the woman rendered across the United States in marble and gold.
Catherine Yang is a junior majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Tuesday.