In the movie "Pretty Woman" (1990), a hooker with a heart of gold wins herself a millionaire. Pretty unlikely.
Not much more believable is the song "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964), in which the great Roy Orbison soaringly describes an improbably successful pickup on the street.
Now comes the museum show, which is similarly implausible. "Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty" is a one-room exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art. You're not supposed to notice, but its good-looking young women are earnestly pretending to be what they are not -- pious Grecian maidens or Renaissance madonnas or other high-toned damsels -- although, of course, we know that they're really artists' models, not entirely respectable, posing in the studio for a painter with a brush.
In the ostentatious 1890s, long before he gave the Mall his Asian art museum, Charles Lang Freer filled his Detroit house with pictures such as these. Impossibly pure lovelies trembled on his walls. Some are dressed up like Greek statues. Others wear kimonos. One clad all in white meditates adoringly on a single white carnation ("a vegetable love," as W.S. Gilbert put it, "which would certainly not suit me").
What do these women do? Not much. They're too pure to do much. Instead, these achingly ethereal beings arise before the dawn and put on evening gowns to wander among lilies in the dripping dew-damp woods. Have these graceful, bloodless creatures ever washed a dish, or earned an honest living, or hung a load of laundry, or flirted with a stranger? They most certainly have not!
That's because they dwell in regions more exalted. Throughout the 1890s, America kept placing new statues in its parks, and new bright white columned temples, and the pretty modern women drifting through Freer's pictures are likewise meant to represent a world as stainless and antique.
Freer had lots of money (it came from building railroad cars) and towering self-regard. His taste he thought exquisite, and attuned to the transcendent. Throughout the 1890s, four accomplished painters -- James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Dwight William Tryon (1849-1925), Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938) -- regularly supplied him with vaguely allegorical pictures such as these.
They weren't pinups. They were the opposite of pinups. While Sigmund Freud in Vienna was pondering the sex drive, while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was sketching in the brothels of Montmartre, Freer was seeking portraits that celebrated sexlessness. He acquired these in quantity. He bought 70 Whistler oils, and more than 40 Dewings. The pale and affected pictures on his walls, like the Chinese vases gathered in his vaults, were objects with a message. They were badges of high-mindedness. I am, Freer's art informs us, holier than thou.
Or, at least, I am less crass. When Freer's museum opened, with peacocks in the courtyard, in 1923 it did so with strict conditions: Nothing could be borrowed, nothing could be lent, lest lesser souls pollute the transcendent perfection achieved by Mr. Freer.
Real women scared him. "The modern American woman, with her fancies of independence [and] diabolical tendencies, is startling all sensible people," he once complained to Tryon. So Thayer's striding "Virgin" is presented as an angel, and Dewing's long-necked lovelies look oddly immaterial: The slender chairs on which they pose would not support a gnat.
In 2005, when much-admired beauties tattoo themselves like sailors, such exaggerated purity seems a bit preposterous. And also hypocritical. The women on Freer's walls were neither saints nor angels. They were fleshy artist's models, and daring modern women, and not entirely respectable. They partied with bohemians. They were known to take their clothes off. The worldly Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919) must have understood this well.
The young woman at the keyboard in Dewing's "The Piano" (1891) is not just a soulful muse. She is also Minnie Clark, a Victorian supermodel better known to art historians as the original Gibson Girl. Some lying was required when Dewing, though a married man, had a secret relationship with another of his models, the luscious Mollie Chatfield. Freer, who aided in their subterfuge, didn't seem to mind.
James Whistler, Freer's favorite, was even more notorious. Sleeping with his models was, he seemed to feel, a gifted painter's right. "From the beginning he established an unbroken sequence of intimate relationships with models and mistresses" is the way the label puts it. One of the most beautiful, copper-haired Jo Hiffernan, is seen often in this show. A liberated woman, Jo is also well remembered for her participation in a dreamy and unclothed lesbian embrace famously depicted by the Frenchman Gustave Courbet.
Whistler was a cad, a racist and an impregnator of parlor maids. Freer, who must have known all this, didn't seem to mind. But then the rich collector was himself no angel. Though the pretty women on his walls seem virtuous to the nth degree, this was not always the case of those he entertained in life.
Freer, a lifelong bachelor, was known as a "notorious" rake "whom no young woman could properly visit alone," Agnes E. Meyer, one of his devoted friends, was warned in 1913. His health broke in his last years. So, too, did his sanity. It "could only have been" syphilis, Meyer wrote.
Pretty Women: Freer and the Ideal of Feminine Beauty will remain on exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art, 12th Street and Independence Avenue SW, through Sept. 17, 2006. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.