Man Ray and his muses

[24 Mar 2023]

A few months after a new auction record was hammered at over 12 million dollars for a work by Man Ray, we take a selective look back at the artist’s female muses and the genesis of some of the most famous shots in photographic history.

Emmanuel Radnitzky, aka MAN RAY, was born in 1890 in Philadelphia, USA. He spent his childhood in New York and attended the Modern School at the Ferrer Center before working with Marcel Duchamp, who was then the embodiment of the New York Dadaist movement. In 1921, Duchamp welcomed Man Ray to Paris and introduced him to Aragon, Breton, Éluard, Fraenkel, Picabia, Ribemont-Dessaignes and Tzara, the circle of future Surrealists. He also met Kiki de Montparnasse, his first important muse. In Paris, Man Ray abandoned painting to immerse himself in photography with an enthusiasm and creativity that would revolutionize both fashion photography and photographic language itself.

At the same time as doing his first fashion photography work for Paul Poiret in 1922 (the publication of which significantly raised his public profile), Man Ray was already developing his famous ‘rayographs’, a technique to create images without using a camera. The first reproductions of his photographs appeared the same year in the magazine Littérature founded by Louis Aragon, André Breton and Philippe Soupault. In 1922, Aragon officially dubbed Man Ray a “great photographer” in his pantheon of the year. When Surrealism was proclaimed in 1924, Ray joined the group as an active artist and collaborator. The following year, his works were shown at the first Surrealist exhibition at the Pierre gallery in Paris.

André Breton said of Man Ray that he had “the head of a magic lantern” and was “a poet who writes with light”. An insatiable experimenter, Ray is considered the most inventive photographer of the 20th century, notably via his explorations of ‘rayograms’, solarizations, superimpositions, photomontages, or when he drew directly onto his prints. By inventing new ways of representing bodies and faces, he shook up the genres of the nude and the portrait and extended the limits – both technical and symbolic – of photographic imagery.

When it comes to photographic effects, it was Man Ray who stepped out of the frame and opened up the field of possibilities.” Xavier Rey, from the Cantini Museum in Marseille (2019)

Although Man Ray photographed many artists, writers, thinkers and anonymous people, his first source of inspiration was women… with all of their photographic potential. He solarized Meret Oppenheim and Juliette Gréco, had Elsa Schiaparelli pose for him, as well as Nusch Eluard, Dora Maar, the Countess de Beauchamp, collectors Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein, to name just a few of the key women in his entourage. Others became his muses with whom he shared a few years of his life while creating some of the most striking images in the history of photography.

The artist and his muses

Man Ray’s photographic experiments evolved as frequently as his romantic life and several women were mesmerized by both the man and his photographic work, from Kiki de Montparnasse, his first Parisian lover, to the sublime Lee Miller, model and photographer and then Juliet Browner, his accomplice until the very end.

Kiki de Montparnasse (1901-1953): muse of Noire et Blanche and Le Violon d’Ingres

The bare back displaying the sound holes of a violin in this iconic photograph belongs to Alice Prin, known as Kiki de Montparnasse, a singer, dancer, cabaret manager, but also a muse to many artists and a painter herself. The “Queen of Montparnasse” became the photographer’s first lover in Paris and posed for him as early as 1921. It was she who inspired Man Ray to create two of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, firmly anchored in our collective memory: Noire et Blanche and Le Violon d’Ingres.

In Noire et Blanche, a 1926 photograph, the ivory hue of Kiki’s face is shown against the ebony black of an African mask. Eyes closed, the Muse Kiki makes explicit reference to Constantin Brancusi’s sculpture Muse endormie (Sleeping Muse).

With a mischievous surrealism, Le Violon d’Ingres directly references the famous painting Baigneuse Valpinçon by the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom Man Ray admired. Man Ray also plays with the popular French expression avoir un violon d’Ingres (to have a hobby) invoked by the eroticized image of Kiki, the painter’s first lover in Paris. The photographer thus evokes the theme of Amour Fou (Mad Love) developed by André Breton in his eponymous book of 1937.

In May 2022, Le Violon d’Ingres became the most expensive photograph in the world, selling for $12.4 million at Christie’s in New York. The result exceeded all expectations, with the print having been estimated between $5 and $7 million; but its quality triggered a ten-minute bidding war. This sale marks an important turning point in the valuation of great 20th-century photographs, including Man Ray’s work, for which demand is now more intense than ever.

At auction
Price range for The Violin of Ingres (1924)

From under $1,000 for a posthumous 2010 mintage of 50 copies to several millions of dollars, the record having been set at $12.4 million on 15 May 2022 at Christie’s New York (Le Violon d’Ingres).

Price range for Noire et Blanche (1926)

From around $15,000 for a posthumous print by Pierre Gassmann up to $4 million dollars for a period silver print from the collection of Kiki de Montparnasse. This record was also hammered recently (Noire et Blanche, 17 November at Christie’s New York).

Lee Miller (1907-1977)

After a dazzling early career as a fashion model the young Lee Miller left New York in 1929 and turned up at Man Ray’s abode in Paris, determined he would teach her photography. She became his assistant, his muse and his companion until 1932. Together, they discovered the technique known as ‘solarization’ after Miller accidently turned on the light of the darkroom, giving rise to a series of images with contours bathed in a luminous halo. Later, turned journalist, Lee Miller became the first war correspondent of the British edition of Vogue magazine.

At auction

The best result for a Man Ray photo of Lee Miller was hammered at Christie’s in October last year, soon after the record-breaking sale of his Le Violon d’Ingres for over $12 million. The image captures Lee’s profile outlined by the light and it fetched $378,000, more than twice its high estimate (Lee Miller).

His most famous photograph depicting Miller is Veiled erotic (Erotique voilée, 1933), a silver gelatin bromide print which fetched $284,800 in 2005. That same print would almost certainly sell for double that price today.

Adrienne Fidelin (1915-2004)

The beautiful Guadeloupean arrived in the heady atmosphere of early 1930s Paris not long after a deadly cyclone destroyed her home and family in Les Iles de Saintes in 1928. In Paris she became a dancer and went to the famous Bal Nègre on rue Blomet where she frequented other Caribbeans. In 1934, she met Man Ray and became his new muse, his model, and his companion. He was 46 years old and she was in her early twenties. Man Ray photographed her more than 400 times, but photographs of her are less known than those of Man Ray’s other muses. Her romance with Man Ray lasted until the Nazi occupation in 1940 when Man Ray, of Jewish origin, decided to return to the United States while Adrienne decided to stay in France and settled in Albi.

At a time when photos of black models were banned from magazines, Ady made history with four photographs selected to illustrate an article entitled “The Bushongo of Africa sends his hats to Paris”, which appeared in a 1937 edition of Harper’s Bazaar, the first time a black model ever appeared in an American fashion magazine.

At auction

Man Ray’s photos of Ady are relatively rare and their prices are growing: in 2021, a very beautiful portrait sold for ten times its estimate at around $38,000 (Ady Fidelin, Christie’s Paris, 2 March 2021), a much more affordable price than the prices paid for the famous pictures of Lee Miller or Kiki de Montparnasse.

Juliet Browner (1911-1993)

In August 1940, Man Ray moved to Hollywood where he met 28-year-old Juliet Browner, a dancer with a somewhat oriental demeanour. Browner became his new muse and in October 1946 the couple were married in a double wedding with Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst. During the eleven years they spent in the United States, he photographed Juliet a lot and exhibited his work both on the West Coast and the East Coast. In 1951, Juliet & Man Ray moved to Paris where they lived until Man Ray’s death in 1976 at the age of 86. For 30 years, Man Ray photographed Juliet’s hands, her naked body and her face, sometimes making her wear a mask or extravagant makeup or even mud… or wearing a stocking as a mask.

In the early 1950s, Man Ray sought to publish a book in homage to Juliet. Although art dealer Giorgio Marconi eventually managed to publish the work that Man Ray wanted, it was not until 1981, five years after the artist’s death. The book was titled Fifty Faces of Juliet.

At auction

In March 2021 a photo of Juliet’s statuesque face covered in mud from the Lucien and Edmonde Treillard Collection fetched $19,600 at Christie’s in Paris (Juliet, portrait ancien et nouveau, 1950, signed and dated ‘Man Ray 1950’). However in 2018, a double portrait of Juliet and Margaret wearing masks (Juliet and Margaret in masks, Los Angeles) sold for $75,000 at Christie’s in New York.

One of Man Ray’s most shocking and eroticized images of Juliet – Juliet in stocking mask (5 x 5 cm) – was worth around $6,000 in 1995. Today this rare photograph is worth around $15,000. Wearing a transparent black stocking over her head, Juliet is transformed into an erotic fantasy. While this image fetishizes Juliet and evokes the sexual predilections of the Marquis de Sade who Man Ray admired, it also evokes André Breton’s declaration in the Surrealist Manifesto that convulsive beauty will be veiled erotic, exploding-fixed, magic circumstantial or it will not be.

Upcoming sale: Jacqueline Barsotti-Goddard’s collection at Bonhams in Paris, 29 March 2023

Under the title “La Révolution Surréaliste”, Bonhams-Cornette de Saint Cyr will be offering a broad selection of paintings and artworks from the Surrealist movement on 29 March, including photographs by Man Ray from the Jacqueline Barsotti-Goddard collection. Completely fresh and having never been sold publicly, the collection was gifted by Man Ray to Jacqueline over the years in recognition of their long friendship and creative collaborations. A Portrait of Jacqueline (estimated €8,000 – €12,000) and a solarized Portrait of Lee Miller (estimated €7,000 – €10,000) are among the items in the sale.