Sylvia Sleigh was 57 years old when she met Paul Rosano. In those days, numerous New York artists and critics came under the British painter’s brush, but it was Rosano she seemed to love the best. He was her Victorine Meurent, dark and lithe and very young. Not much is known about him, save that he modeled at the School of Visual Arts, in New York; that he played the lute; and that he bore an uncanny resemblance to Jane Morris, Gabriel Rossetti’s favorite model, sharing her close-set eyes, symmetrical features and luxuriant mane that rises in a dark corona around a tapered face.
Rosano appeared repeatedly, and sometimes multiply, in Sleigh’s paintings: twice in her most famous work, The Turkish Bath (1976), and twice in Paul Rosano: Double Portrait (1974). In the latter, he stands in front of a mirror so that we see both sides of him: his torso, wreathed with hair like iron filaments disposed by erogenous magnets; and his back in shadow, a blue-beige tan line boosting Sleigh’s attentive contouring of his hindquarters. Sleigh’s model is two-thirds the Three Graces, a single beauty seized, god bless, from every angle.
In 1975, the curator Judith Van Buren included this double portrait in her exhibition entitled “The Year of the Woman,” at the Bronx Museum, which at the time was located in the district courthouse. Justice Owen McGivern launched a complaint. Said the Justice: “We are all in sympathy with the arts, but explicit male nudity in the corridor of a public courthouse is something else.” Van Buren successfully defended Sleigh’s work on the basis of its classical pedigree, and yet the Justice’s “we”—equally the illusion of a universal audience and allusion to a vox judicialis—expresses more about Sleigh’s radicalism than her more art-savvy proponents have to date.
Sleigh, her advocates assert, painted men as objects of desire without, however, thereby objectifying them. “I don’t mind the desire part,” Sleigh has often explained, “it’s the object that’s not really nice. I opted to paint men in the way that I appreciate them, as dignified and intelligent people.” Thus her nudes—both the women she painted throughout her career, and the men that established her, however perfunctorily, as a feminist artist—were also portraits. It’s hard to dispute this (Sleigh’s realism tenderly renders details with an “almost awesome intimacy,” in the words of critic Michael Benedict), and yet her characterization has come at the expense of the eroticism clearly issuing from Sleigh’s work. After all, it was not sympathy with Rosano that McGivern was lacking, but rather with the art itself, which is to say, with Sleigh’s ardent gaze.