Sunday, July 1, 2007


In both art and life, the sculptor Gaston Lachaise was famously devoted to his muse, Isabel.

Lachaise was working in Paris in 1901 when he first saw Isabel Nagle strolling through the gardens by the Seine. Isabel was a married woman on vacation from the United States. Lachaise later recalled, she “immediately became the primary inspiration which awakened my vision...."

The young artist appeared at her door every day until she agreed to let him draw her portrait. By the time she left Paris to return home to Boston, the couple was in love .

Lachaise could not live apart from Isabel. He gave up his friends and family in Paris, learned to speak English and followed her to Boston with just $30 in his pocket. There, he persuaded her to leave her husband, a conservative local businessman.

Gaston and Isabel fled strict Boston society to romp nude in the remote woods of Maine. They swam and frolicked in the phosphorescent sea at night. They wrote bad love poetry to each other (as is every couple's right). A sample from Gaston:

I sing my hymn to you,
You the goddess for whom I searched,
Whom I express in my every work,
Have made me a God.

Isabel and Gaston were married, and Gaston devoted his entire career to sculpting monuments to her ample belly, powerful haunches and pendulous breasts.

Years later he wrote, “through her the splendor of life was uncovered for me and the road of wonder began widening….” It must have been somewhere along that wider road that he started sculpting Isabel opened up like some giant fecund orchid.

I used to think Lachaise's art was pretty uncomplicated. Then I read that Isabel was in reality just five feet, two inches tall and weighed a mere 110 pounds. Whoa.

Oliver Sacks observed that "the world isn't given to us-- we make it with our nervous systems." In art as in love, what we bring to and invest in the object of our affection plays a significant role in what we perceive.

Lachaise did not simply copy Isabel as nature created her. Through her he distilled abstract shapes and contours of eros.
Willa Cather once said we can find happiness by being "dissolved into something complete and great." As far as I can tell, Lachaise followed that formula to become a very happy guy.