Monday’s Muse: Charis Wilson
Charis Wilson was born to Harry and Helen Wilson on May 5th, 1914. Harry was a successful writer and had built his family a large house in Carmel, California. From a young age Charis was outgoing and believed she would follow in the footsteps of her literary family. Her grandmother, father and great-aunt were all writers, and Charis believe it was a given that she too would become writer. Her liberal sensibilities may have been in tune with the community around Carmel, but they were at odds with those of her classmates at school. She started a ‘Self-Control’ Club whose initiation rite required candidates to submerge themselves in a bathtub of freezing water. The administration at the Branson School did not take kindly to her antics and soon after she was expelled.
Charis’ parents separated in her teens, and she was moved to the care of her aforementioned grandmother and great aunt. The women encouraged her creativity, and introduced her to a pair of art collectors – Walter and Louise Arensberg – who lived nearby. Charis was fascinated by their collection, which included not only important Pre-Columbian antiquities, but also an extensive collection of contemporary works by the likes of Duchamp, and Metzinger. Louise encouraged Charis’ curiosity by engaging her in debates about art. Charis would later credit the Arensbergs as the source of her entire art education.
Somewhere between December, 1933, and January, 1934, Wilson and Edward Weston attended the same concert, and Weston’s account of the concert almost verges on the cliche. He saw:
“…this tall, beautiful girl, with fine proportioned body, intelligent face, well-freckled, blue eyes, golden brown hair to shoulders – and [knew I] had to meet [her].”
Accounts vary with some saying that it was Leon (Wilson’s elder brother) who introduced the two, and others contesting that it was actually Sonya Noskowiak who introduced the pair. Noskowiak is perhaps the more plausible as she and Weston were both part of the famous f/64 club in San Francisco. Upon meeting, there was an immediate connection between the two, Wilson wrote:
“For anyone interested in statistics – I wasn’t – he was 48 years old and I had just turned 20. What was important to me was the sight of someone who quite evidently was twice as alive as anyone else in the room, and whose eyes most likely saw twice as much as anyone else’s did.”
Edward Weston’s portrait of Charis Wilson, 1934. Image Source: The Met Museum.
When Wilson first visited Weston’s studio he was actually away on a trip. Noskowiak met her and showed her Weston’s work and encouraged her to model for him. Weston by this time had established his career, although his personal life was more complex: he was in a relationship with Noskowiak, and the two shared a studio, but he was still married to his wife in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, Wilson was as much taken by him as he by her, and after their second session, Weston wrote in his diary:
“…a new love come into my life … one which, I believe, will stand the test of time.”
The pair became almost immediately inseparable, each feeding off the passion of the other. Wilson and Weston moved to Los Angeles and began living together around 1935. It was around this time that Weston switched from using his 4”x 5” to his larger 8” x 10” view camera. One of the first photos he made after this switch is the now iconic Nude (Charis, Santa Monica), which was taken in the doorway of their home. Wilson travelled with Weston wherever he went, and whilst he was experimenting with landscape photography in the Oceano Dunes, she spontaneously undressed and rolled through the dunes. The act gave rise to the seminal series he made there, much of which is considered his best work.
Weston’s Nude in Doorway, 1936. Image Source: Art Knowledge News.
In 1937, with the help of Wilson, Weston applied for the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, and became the first photographer to qualify (Wilson wrote his application). The pair took the $2,000 grant and went on a whirldwind tour, which Wilson painstakingly recorded in her journals. Together they traveled over 16,697 miles in only 187 days. At the beginning of 1938, Weston divorced his wife Flora. Wilson and Weston married in 1939.
Over the following years, Wilson and Weston would collaborate closely on a set of books, which combined his photographs and her narratives. They traveled endlessly, and the fruits of this relationship bore Seeing California with Edward Weston; California and the West; and a re-edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Weston’s Charis, Lake Ediza, 1937. Image Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
But the constant travelling took a toll on their marriage, and Wilson began to tire of always putting Weston’s needs first. She was pursuing her writing, and Weston had not lost his interest in younger women. He continued to focus on his photography, and in 1946, after Wilson became involved with a labor activist, the pair divorced. Weston notes in his diary rather dryly: “Charis is in Reno getting a divorce. Cole in L.A. getting new Chevrolet.”
The pair continued down their now divergent paths, though the impact of Wilson on Weston’s work was never diminished. She was the means by which Weston found, and perfected his visual language. She was his muse, his collaborator, his co-conspirator, and one of his great loves.
Featured Image: Weston’s Nude on Sand, Oceano, 1936. Image Source: The Met Museum.