The “Wife Guys” of Art History
Giulio Quaglio I, Self Portrait of the Artist Painting His Wife, 1628. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
If you’ve been following internet reporting for a millisecond, you’ve surely heard about the “wife guy.” Tom Whyman coined the term in May 2019, but over at the New York Times, Amanda Hess succinctly and helpfully defined the character, who pops up on Instagram and Twitter: The “wife guy” is a man who has “married a woman, and now that is his personality.” Examples include Robbie Tripp, who defended his love for his curvy wife and has turned his ardor into a speaking gig; Shaun McBride, who filmed his wife tumbling off a “cliff” (er, a hill with some rocks) and made a YouTube film about it; and one man who impersonated his wife online to develop a comedy persona.
Before humans invented social media (ca. 1995), and after they developed the institution of marriage (ca. 2350 B.C.E.), male artists served as some of history’s greatest wife guys. Painting, photographing, and performing with their wives became crucial to these men’s aesthetic identities. Resulting artworks reveal varying degrees of desire, obsession, and pure utilitarianism: When looking for subject matter, sometimes the best options are just on the other side of the bed.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, ca. 1635. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
After Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, died in 1642 at age 29, the artist gave up lucrative painting commissions for nearly a decade. The anecdote furthers the sense of romance evident in his canvases. Throughout their eight years of marriage, Rembrandt drew and painted Van Uylenburgh with such variation that a complex personality of the artist’s wife emerges. Portrait of Saskia with a Flower (1641), for example, depicts Van Uylenburgh with her hand on her heart, gazing out of the painting and offering a flower to an unseen figure—ostensibly, to her artist husband. Rembrandt places the viewer in the middle of his own tender love story, between painter and muse.
Saskia proved to be a skilled actress herself, adopting new personas for the benefit of her husband’s work. In Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes (1634), she’s a proper lady dressed in elaborate robes, looking skeptically at the maiden in front of her, who offers a shell-shaped cup. Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Brothel (ca. 1635), in contrast, depicts Saskia as a sex worker, shooting the viewer a knowing look. She sits on the lap of the titular character, played by her husband, as he offers a wide, satisfied smile. Despite the composition’s hint of ribald, genuine affection between the couple seeps through: Rembrandt rests his hand supportively on his wife’s back.
François Boucher, L’Odalisque Brune, 1743. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Rococo painter François Boucher’s 1743 canvas A Lady on her Day Bed offers a momentary glimpse into his marriage and home life. His wife and frequent model, Marie-Jeanne Buzeau, reclines in a frilly, white-and-pink outfit atop her pink daybed. She poses casually—one leg off the furniture, one hand propping up her head while the other rests across her lap. She’s equally carefree about tidying up her quarters. Rumpled clothing covers the ottoman. A letter crumples at one side of the frame, while a curtain pools in wrinkled folds at the other. Boucher depicts a happy mess—an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for his marriage.
He and Buzeau are each believed to have dabbled in extramarital affairs, though they remained wed, and Boucher painted her several more times before his death in 1770. The pair also worked together, with Buzeau reproducing miniature etchings of Boucher’s paintings and drawings. Their shared appreciation for art, and their keen ability to collaborate apparently triumphed over the threat of their infidelities.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864–70. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium, 1860. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti treated his wife, Elizabeth Siddall, as a subservient muse, a role that eclipsed her artistic reputation and quickened her tragic, untimely demise. Before she met Rossetti, Siddall famously modeled for John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia (1851–52). To portray the titular Shakespearean heroine, who drowned herself in a brook, Millais required Siddall to spend five months in the bathtub. The feat rewarded her with a bout of pneumonia. Her circumstances hardly improved after she wed Rossetti in 1860. Siddall’s husband demanded far less strenuous poses—he painted her from the neck up, with a heart necklace in Regina Cordium (1860); and idealized her as Beatrice, muse to Dante Alighieri—but his womanizing and strange requests plagued her. She feared her husband would lose interest as she aged, and he required that she drop an “L” from her last name. In 1862, shortly after suffering a miscarriage, Siddall fatally overdosed on laudanum.
Rossetti buried his wife with a book of his poems: a supposedly sweet gesture until he had her body exhumed to get his work back. Thanks to Rossetti and Millais’s portrayals, Siddall is best known for her pale, delicate skin and fiery mane. Her own creative output, however, is also in plain sight: her watercolors and drawings are in the collections of the Tate Britain, the National Trust, and the Ashmolean Museum. These artworks affirm Siddall’s dreamy, romantic temperament and a sense of interiority that her husband never quite nailed.
The story of mid-century, self-taught artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein has resounding parallels with Rossetti’s relationship to Siddall. In 1943, Von Bruenchenhein married Evelyn Kalka, whom he’d met at the Wisconsin State Fair. He renamed her Marie, after his favorite aunt. According to the plaque he mounted in his kitchen, Von Bruenchenhein considered himself a poet, artist, and philosopher. When he wasn’t working menial jobs at a bakery and flower shop, he was taking dozens of photographs of Kalka posed like a pin-up.
In Von Bruenchenhein’s pictures, she often sits against a floral backdrop, her breasts bared or her legs bent behind her in a schoolgirl posture. The necklaces and crowns Kalka frequently wears in the shots suggest that her husband was more interested in fantasy and play than in using the camera to capture any truth or nuance of his wife’s personality. It’s impossible to know just how much Kalka enjoyed her role as a muse or influenced the photographs, whether the process was collaborative or more of a chore. Von Bruenchenhein’s pictures are striking records of a simultaneously generative and claustrophobic intimacy.
Marriage itself can be conceptual art. In 1978, George Maciunas, a founder of the Fluxus movement that privileged experimental performance, held his “Fluxwedding” to Billie Hutching in a SoHo loft. “Dearly beloved, we are assembled here in the presence of gargoyles,” the officiant began, then invoked “electromagnetics.” Artists Louise Bourgeois, Nam June Paik, and La Monte Young were all in attendance. After the ceremony, the wedded pair undressed in front of their audience to an opera soundtrack, then put on each other’s clothing. Three months later, Maciunas died of pancreatic and liver cancer. Maciunas’s bittersweet matrimonial proceedings asserted a radical, new interpretation of one of the world’s oldest rituals.
The romance between Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe took on mythical dimensions as the pair enacted a Pygmalion-esque drama with the New York art world as their audience. Throughout the late 1910s, Stieglitz became O’Keeffe’s gallerist and mentor as she became his muse. He introduced her to the milieu that congregated at 291, his Manhattan gallery, and gave her studio space where she could develop her nascent painting practice. In turn, Stieglitz took revealing, nude portraits of O’Keeffe and put them on display at 291. The two became lovers, then, in 1924, man and wife. Stieglitz quickly began extramarital affairs, and O’Keeffe yearned for adventures of her own. She traveled to Hawaii and New Mexico and eventually settled in the latter, on a ranch in Abiquiu. While Stieglitz still enjoys a reputation as an influential modernist photographer, his relationship with O’Keeffe made him a legendary character in one of art history’s most storied romances.
In the mid-1980s, Jeff Koons was making art by suspending basketballs in tanks, with help from Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. They initially sold for $3,000. Always a keen market player, Koons turned his aesthetic attention to the one theme that’s proven to sell: sex. In 1989, he contacted a Hungarian-Italian pornography star named Ilona Staller (stage name Cicciolina) with the intent of making sexually explicit works of his own. The pair’s relationship quickly grew from professional to sexual, an intimate convergence of art and life. They married in 1991. Koons made colored glass figurines that depicted Staller giving him a blow job or propping herself against a chair during a sex act with him. He created paintings, sculptures, and giant billboards that showed the pair in compromising positions. The artworks are gathered in Koons’s “Made in Heaven” series (1989–91), which remains one of the art world’s most exuberant forays into the realm of bad taste.
Alex Katz has been painting his wife, Ada Del Moro, for over 60 years. The pair met in 1957 when Del Moro was working as a research biologist and they married a few months later. While Katz painted portraits of other figures, ranging from poet and curator Frank O’Hara to artist Robert Rauschenberg, his wife quickly became his favorite subject. In the intervening decades, Katz has painted and printed over 250 pictures of Del Moro. He renders her broad forehead and soft cheeks in his signature flat, lush style. In each portrait, her visage changes. She’s shown smiling with a streak in her hair or aloof in a bathing cap while positioned against an orange background. She’s seen wearing a patterned button-down, looking away from the viewer orgazing coyly out of the frame in a purple beret. The central character in Katz’s body of work remains inscrutable, despite her myriad representations. It is, perhaps, an apt metaphor for any relationship: The more you look at your partner, the more you realize how little you know.