Hidden Figure

Adrienne Fidelin, Man Ray’s Forgotten Muse

He called her his “little black sun.” Born in Guadeloupe, Adrienne Fidelin was the American artist’s partner in Paris before World War II tore them apart. She appears in almost 400 of the renowned artist’s photographs, and in 1937 became the first Black model to be featured in a leading U.S. fashion magazine. However, she was pushed to the sidelines of history. American scholar Wendy Grossman has spent the last five years trying to rectify this injustice, and her efforts helped Fidelin become part of the Black Models: from Géricault to Matisse exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019.
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Adrienne Fidelin and Man Ray in Mougins, near Cannes, 1937. © Lee Miller Archives, England, 2020. All rights reserved. LeeMiller.co.uk

Adrienne Fidelin was a little-known figure at the center of a renowned surrealist circle. Together with Man Ray, she vacationed on the Côte d’Azur with poet Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch, artist Dora Maar, photographer Lee Miller, and artist Roland Penrose. On a photo taken during the summer of 1937, she is seen in a swimsuit leaning against Picasso. And yet very little is known about her life. Wendy Grossman, a curatorial associate at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., has devoted considerable time to telling the story of this woman “hidden in plain sight.”

Man Ray himself only mentions Fidelin fleetingly in his autobiography. This marginalization continues today, despite current efforts to recognize the stories of people of color throughout history. For example, there were four portraits of Fidelin presented in the Man Ray and Fashion exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in 2020-2021. But the show’s catalogue only mentions her in passing, stating that the lovers mets in 1936 (they actually met in 1934) and that she was “his partner until he left for the United States.” Her name is also spelled wrong twice (“Adelin Fidelin”).

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Adrienne Fidelin, Pablo Picasso, and Dora Maar in the South of France, 1937. Image courtesy of the Wendy Grossman Archives. © Man Ray Trust 2015/2020 Estate of Pablo Picasso/2020 Artists Rights Society, New York/ ADAGP, Paris
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Adrienne Fidelin, Man Ray, Roland Penrose, Paul Eluard and his wife Nusch on Sainte-Marguerite Island, off the coast of Cannes, in 1937. © Lee Miller Archives, England, 2020. All rights reserved. LeeMiller.co.uk

Restoring the Truth

Adrienne Fidelin was born on March 4, 1915, in Pointe-à-Pitre. At the age of 13, she lost her mother in a hurricane that devastated Guadeloupe, and her father died a few years later. The orphaned teenager joined other members of her family living in Paris in the early 1930s. At the time, the French capital was under the thrall of the Colonial Exposition and obsessed with France’s far-flung colonies. At the Bal Blomet, a cabaret in the 15th arrondissement, the West Indian diaspora and the artistic avant-garde partied to the sounds of Creole biguine music, and Fidelin joined a Guadeloupean dance company.

This is most likely where she and Man Ray first set eyes on each other. She was 19, he was 44. In a diary entry dated December 29, 1934, the artist simply wrote “Ady.” Wendy Grossman discovered this valuable evidence of their first meeting in the Man Ray archives at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The following year, he wrote down her number (“Odéon 79-95”) and photographed her wearing a simple white tank top. The artist and the dancer were inseparable. On May 13, 1937, Man Ray combined their names in a tender Surrealist pairing, writing “Manady” and “Adyman” in his diary.

Fidelin was immediately adopted by her partner’s friends, who were fascinated by her black skin and beguiled by her radiant beauty. In his biography of Man Ray, Roland Penrose describes “Ady, the delightful girl from Guadeloupe who could swim, laugh, and dance like a brown angel.” She shone in the midst of these hedonists. Photographs from the time show her lying on the beach in Antibes, asleep in Cornwall with Nusch Eluard, Lee Miller, and the painter Leonora Carrington, and in a deep conversation with Picasso.

Picasso’s Anonymous Model

Picasso finished her portrait in September 1937. But Femme assise sur fond jaune et rose, II remained anonymous for 80 years. Her hair texture, the depiction of her skin tone, her jewelry, and an annotated photo taken by Man Ray helped Wendy Grossman identify Fidelin as the model. “This discovery was a revelation for the art world and a major development in my research,” says the curator. “I believe there is at least one more portrait of her by Picasso.”

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Pablo Picasso, Femme assise sur fond jaune et rose, II, 1937. Image courtesy of the Wendy Grossman Archives. © 2019 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society, New York
This photograph of Adrienne Fidelin taken by Man Ray in 1937 helped Wendy Grossman identify the young woman in Picasso’s painting. Image courtesy of the Wendy Grossman Archives. © Man Ray Trust 2015/2020 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris 2020

On September 15, 1937, a full-page portrait photo of Fidelin taken by Man Ray was published in the U.S. magazine Harper’s Bazaar – a first in segregated America. However, captured “wearing a tiger-tooth necklace, an ivory arm bracelet, and a Belgian Congo headdress, and adopting a seductive pose, Fidelin was presumed to represent the sensual African ‘native’ identified in the article’s title,” writes Wendy Grossman. “The article shows how the Surrealist movement exoticized ‘the other.’”

Man Ray found a partner in Fidelin, but their relationship was asymmetrical. “She stops me from sinking into pessimism,” he wrote. “She does everything: shining my shoes, making me breakfast, and painting the backdrops on my large canvases.” Fidelin also danced in the “negro clubs” on the Champs-Elysées and worked with photographers and directors looking for “exotic girls.” This is how she became an extra in the movie The Secrets of the Red Sea, adapted from a book by Henry de Monfreid

Adrienne Fidelin in Man Ray’s Mode au Congo series, 1937. The bottom-left portrait was published in Harper’s Bazaar on September 15, 1937. Image courtesy of Telimage, Paris. © Man Ray Trust 2015/2020 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris 2020

The Last Photos of Ady

The couple was torn apart when the Wehrmacht entered Paris in June 1940. After trying – and failing – to flee to the Côte d’Azur together, Man Ray returned to the United States alone. The lovers continued writing each other for a few months, but the war severely impacted the postal service and Man Ray soon fell in love with another dancer in Hollywood. Fidelin remained in Paris, married another man in 1957, and died in a retirement home a few miles outside Albi in Southern France.

Man Ray took his final photos of Fidelin in 1947. The artist was in Paris to collect the belongings he had abandoned in his hurry to return home. “Fidelin protected several of Man Ray’s artworks and possessions during the war, probably with the help of Mary Reynolds, Marcel Duchamp’s partner,” says Wendy Grossman. “But Man Ray never repaid his debt to Adrienne Fidelin who saved part of his artistic legacy.”

 

Article published in the December 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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