Working from Life
Thanks to Kasia for sharing.
My drawing of Vivien Leigh was done in 1964 when she was staying in Los Angeles for the filming of Ship of Fools. She kindly agreed to sit for me but warned me in advance that, because of her inability to sit still, she had defeated some of the best portrait artists of her time. My research into the work of artists who had drawn or painted her revealed ample evidence of her claim.
My own experience showed me why. Within the space of a little more than a week, I went to the house she had rented in West Hollywood for three extended sittings and at each worked with her for many frustrating hours. Though she was always charming and witty, and to me more strikingly beautiful at forty-nine than she had been as Scarlett O’Hara twenty-five yeas earlier, she literally could not be still for more than a few seconds at a time. I have had experience with many sitters who, for whatever reason, have consciously or unconsciously wanted to sabotage my efforts to draw or paint them by refusing to sit still enough. But Leigh, I could plainly see, was helpless to control her own innate restlessness.
Toward the end of out third sitting, it was clear to both of us that, even with maximum effort, I was not doing any better than I had the two previous sessions. Assuming full responsibility for my failure, she was irritated with herself and vowed, if I would agree to do one last picture as quickly as I could, to sit without a single flinch until I’d finished. She put a silk scarf over her head so that I would not have to waste time drawing her hair and, once we’d both resumed our positions, I began working with an almost unprecedented speed. The silent tension between us was palpable, and I could even see tiny drops of perspiration on her brow as she valiantly strove to keep her vow. Because she knew that I have a particular interest in the hands of my sitters and often incorporate one or both into my compositions, without being asked she placed her left hand on her shoulder and near enough to her face that I might draw it as well–and this despite her own dislike of her hands, which she told me were “too big and heavy.”
The last drawing I did of her was done in little more than 15 minutes, but Because she kept her vow of stillness, it is better than any of the others I did of longer duration. The pressure created by our mutually concentrated effort was such that, as soon as I announced that I’d finished, she shot out of her chair as though she’d been catapulted from it. “I’ve never sat as still in my entire life!” she exclaimed with relief, visibly glad to be moving about the room again, a lighted cigarette between her fingers. An animal just released from her cage after months of confinement could not have seemed more grateful. She was pleased, too, with the results of our intense effort and happily signed and dated my drawing.
*Don Bachardy’s drawing of Vivien can be seen in the Vivien Studio Portraits album of site Gallery.