|Female artists' models were regarded as morally suspect in the Victorian period, even those who posed fully clothed. Securing suitable sitters was often difficult for artists, and they frequently resorted to persuading attractive shop-girls and other poorly paid women to sit for them. In his autobiography William Powell Frith described discovering the orange-seller who posed for this picture: |
"Being in the habit of keeping my eyes pretty well open as I walked along the streets, they were one day gratified by the sight of an orange-girl of a rare type of rustic beauty. Her smile as she had offered her oranges was very bewitching, and had no doubt assisted her in creating a taste for oranges on many occasions."
Despite the initial thrill of his find, Frith encountered many problems when he asked the orange-seller to visit his studio. Firstly, as a devout Catholic she insisted that he gained permission from her priest. The priest refused but Frith persisted until he won her over. Secondly, not being a professional model, she kept snoozing during sittings and the intended picture of a laughing model became 'The Sleeping Model'.
In the painting the perplexed artist is shown trying to make the best of a bad situation when his exhausted model is reduced to a mere studio prop. Her lifeless figure is echoed by the stuffed dummy, which has collapsed into the arms of an equally inanimate suit of armour.
Frith's preparatory study for this picture may suggest his frustrations - the orange-seller's head is sketched four times with varied expressions. However these repeated drawings convey an interest in modern-life subjects and physiognomy, which came to be most famously demonstrated in his 'Derby Day', 1858 (Tate Britain).