Standing Female Nude by Carol Ann Duffy

‘Standing Female Nude’  by Carol Ann Duffy is a three stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first two stanzas contain seven lines each and the final stanza stretches out to double the length, at fourteen lines. Duffy did not choose to give this piece a structured pattern of rhyme, the lines are in free-verse.

This does not mean that the poem lacks unity, rhythm or flow though. One of the most important techniques that Duffy does utilize in ‘Standing Female Nude’ is enjambment. This is seen through lines which end before the natural stopping point in one’s speech. A perfect example of this occurring effectively is between lines two and three of the third stanza. This technique benefits the speech pattern of Duffy’s chosen narrator. Her words move seamlessly from thought to thought, and from line to line. This kind of writing is known as stream of consciousness. There is no single end goal to the woman’s thoughts, instead they move around from place to place, meditating on her role as an artist’s model.

 

Speaker and Context

The speaker is quite clear. She is a female model, posing for an extended period of time for an artist. The language Duffy uses is common place, and easily understandable. This represents the girl’s own social standing. She is someone of the lower, or lower-middle class, trying to make “a few francs.” It is thought that Georges Braques’ 1908 painting, Big Nude, inspired this poem. The painting can be seen here and you can read the full poem here.

 

Summary of Standing Female Nude

‘Standing Female Nude’  by Carol Ann Duffy speaks on the roll of the artist model in the studio of a cold, and unfeeling painter who sees her only as a means to an end. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that she is working in one of the only ways she can, as a model. She is in the middle of a long session, of posing for an artist that the world thinks is a genius. She considers the future, when her painting is going to be hanging in a gallery or museum. The speaker knows that then, those who normally shun her, the social elite, are going to “coo” over her image.” She feels disdainful towards them and the higher principles they claim to appreciate. 

In the next lines she draw a comparison between what the artist values, her “volume,” and what she values, the fact that she needs to eat. As the poem concludes the speaker tries to communicate with the artist. He is unreceptive and tells her to be quiet. When she sees the painting at the end of the day she cannot recognize herself. All those hours and the only thing “Georges” depicted was what he wanted to see. 

 

Analysis of Standing Female Nude

Stanza One

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by informing the reader that she has been standing “Six hours like this.” Within the next few lines it becomes clear that the speaker is an artist’s model, a woman in this case, who is posing nude for an artist. She also tells the reader that she is not being paid a huge sum, only “a few francs.” This gives a little more context to the poem, placing it in France, likely sometime in the early 1900s. 

The speaker, through a stream of consciousness style narration, explains how the artist directs her “Belly nipple arse” into the “window light.” It is the artist’s goal now to take her “color” and move it to the canvas. He directs her to move right and to “be still.” The speaker attempts to reconcile her situation and how she feels about the position she is in.

 She knows that now she will be “hung /  in great museums” and that the, 

bourgeoisie will coo

at such an image of a river-whore.

These people, in real life, have no regard for her or the role she plays in society, but as soon as she is elevated through a male artist’s brush to the walls of a gallery she is the subject of admiration. 

 

Stanza Two 

In the next set of seven lines the speaker continues on from where she left off in the first stanza. She had just addressed the fact that the visitors and patrons of art galleries will see her as “Art.” Her role transcends that of the mundane now that she is depicted in paint. She continues this thought up with the word “Maybe.” She does not feel so strongly about the universal merits of art as she expects the patrons of the gallery will. 

The speaker returns to trying to suss out the artist’s intentions in the next phrase. She thinks that he is “concerned with volume, space.” To her this seems absurd as her biggest worry is “the next meal.” Rather than empathizing with the woman he is painting the artist points out that she is “getting thin.” He tells her “this is not good.”  The situation is “not good” for him as her shape is changing and he cannot accurately portray her in the figure painting. 

The speaker realizes that he is right about her body. She speaks of her breasts as hanging “slightly low” and as the studio as a cold place. The only source of warmth, or previous source of warmth, is the tea in a cup. Within the cup she can see “the tea-leaves” they appear in the image of, 

the Queen of England gazing

on my shape.

She is on display for everyone; from the artist who is as poor as she is and the patrons of the art world to the Queen of England. The Queen, within the speaker’s mind, “murmurs” terms of endearment at the speaker’s shape. She sees this as ridiculous, the fact that her position within an artist’s studio can re-value her to such a degree. 

 

Stanza Three 

Lines 1-7 

The last stanza of the ‘Standing Female Nude’ is double the length of the previous. In the first lines the speaker gives some hint about the artist’s identity. She says his name is “Georges,” a likely reference to Georges Barques. She knows that he has a great reputation in the country, others think him a genius. 

The next lines set out Georges actions and describe the way the two communicate. As mentioned in the previous stanza, the studio is cold. So is Georges. “There are times,” the speaker states, in which he “stiffens for my warmth.” This line has a double meaning. He is cold to her and he reacts sexually to her body when he loses concentration on the work he’s supposed to be doing. This says something about his assumed role as a professional and about his humanity. It takes him down from the pure, unsullied pedestal of the artist. 

Through his painting he takes her from the real world and “possesses” her on the canvas. It is clear in the next lines that the speaker does not have the same positive, almost worshipful, view of the artist as the rest of the world does. She calls him a “Little man” and regains some of her self-possession by thinking that he does not have, 

the money for the arts I sell. 

Both poor, we make our living how we can. 

She does not see him as better than she is. In fact, her position is better than his. She has others things to sell, a reference to her body, and he cannot afford them. The best he’s ever getting is a long look at her while painting. In a moment of reconciliation she recognizes that they are “both poor” and making money the only ways they can. 

 

Lines 8-14 

In the next set of seven lines the speaker asks the artist why he does the work he does. His answer is a simple one, he says he has to, “There is no choice.” His moment of connection with the speaker quickly ends when he tells her not to “talk.” Her movements mess up his concentration as he’s painting but also reveal her to be more human than he’d like to recognize. 

When she smiles it “confuses him.” She thinks this is because artists always “take themselves too seriously.” She contrasts this way of thinking about oneself with the way she lives her own life. The speaker informs the reader that “At night” she fills herself “with wine and “dances around the bars.” She has physical joy in her life that seem to be unknown to the artist. 

In the final lines of ‘Standing Female Nude’ he shows her the painting. She tells him her fee, “Twelve francs” and covers herself with her shawl. When the speaker gets a look at the painting she can only say that it “does not look like {her].” Whatever he has done, she does not recognize. Rather than tapping into some artistic purity and putting it on display on the canvas, the artist has crafted a version of the speaker that does not exist. 

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