Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Charis Wilson, Model and Muse, Dies at 95

Charis Wilson, who was lover, muse, model, amanuensis and wife of the photographer Edward Weston and the subject of many of his best-known nude portraits, died on Friday in Santa Cruz, Calif. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Rachel Fern Harris.

In January 1934 Ms. Wilson was an intellectually inclined, brazenly adventurous young woman of 19 when she met Weston, who was then in his late 40s and a friend of her brother, Leon, at a concert in Carmel, Calif. They were drawn to each other instantly, and she began posing for him shortly thereafter.

“I knew I really didn’t look that good, and that Edward had glorified me,” Ms. Wilson said later, as recounted in “The Model Wife,” a 1999 study by Arthur Ollman of nine photographers and their images of their wives, “but it was a very pleasant thing to be glorified and I couldn’t wait to go back for more."

By the following year they were living together; they married in 1939 and separated in 1945, divorcing the following year.

During their 11 years together, Ms. Wilson wrote the grant application that earned Weston a Guggenheim Fellowship — he was the first photographer to receive one — and she drove the car during his explorations of the West. Mr. Ollman credited Ms. Wilson with actually writing the articles for photography magazines that were attributed to him.

And of course she inspired his art, becoming the literal embodiment of her husband’s aesthetic — elegant, simple, fiercely intimate and glowingly sensual, with shadow and light beautifully in balance — as it applied to the female form. He photographed her clothed and unclothed, indoors and out, and many of his images of her — espied through a window, frolicking on sand dunes, floating in a pool, posed with her face hidden and her limbs complexly entwined — are among his most enduring.

Helen Charis Wilson was born in San Francisco on May 5, 1914. Her father, Henry Leon Wilson, was a popular writer of serial fiction whose best-known work was “Ruggles of Red Gap,” a humorous tale of a stuffy English valet transported to the American West. He was 45 when he married; his wife, Helen, was 16. Their daughter dropped her first name as a young girl, “because she was tired of being called little Helen,” Ms. Harris, Ms. Wilson’s daughter said.

In any case, she preferred Charis, pronounced KARR-iss (rhymes with Harris), the Greek word for grace; she was named for her grandmother, Grace McGowan Cooke, and was largely raised by her and her great-aunt, Alice McGowan, both of whom were writers and part of the San Francisco literary scene that included Jack London.

Her parents were not especially attentive — they divorced when their daughter was an adolescent — and she was sent to several schools in California. She earned a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence College, but her father, impoverished by the Depression, refused to send her, saying that even the ancillary costs of her education were too onerous. Instead she worked for a while as a secretary and then at a dress shop operated by her mother.

“She was leading a rather dissolute life,” her daughter said. “She basically said, ‘O.K, I can’t do what I want, so I’ll live with abandon.’ ”

That was when she met Edward Weston.

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