French Touch

Jean-Paul Goude, the Man Who Sculpted Women

What do Rihanna, Grace Jones, Katy Perry, and Kim Kardashian have in common? They were all photographed by Jean-Paul Goude, the French-American Pygmalion of fashion, who is turning 85 this December 8. The former art director of Esquire magazine spent his career combining painting, drawing, and photography to transform his models – a technique he baptized “French Correction” in the 1970s.
Rihanna for Vogue Paris, 2017. © Jean-Paul Goude

His portrait of Kim Kardashian broke the Internet in 2014. Splashed across the front cover of Paper magazine, the reality TV star was clad in a tight, sequined black dress cut low enough to highlight “her magnificent rear end.” More than enough to send Internet users into a frenzy! Jean-Paul Goude later distanced himself from this piece, but it was too late. The image had already gone down in history.

The French-American artist has made the sublimation of bodies his trademark. One of his iconic images, a painted photograph he made in 1978 for New York magazine, features his then-girlfriend Grace Jones holding a perfect arabesque like a classic ballerina. “First, I photographed her in different positions,” explains Jean-Paul Goude. “I cut her legs, shoulders and neck, altering her proportions to sublimate her silhouette. I then joined up all those cut-up pieces, taped them together, and started painting. In other words, this was not a straight photograph but a photorealist painting that looked exactly like a photograph.”

Grace Revised and Updated, preliminary sketch, 1978. © Jean-Paul Goude
Work in progress. © Jean-Paul Goude
Putting the pieces together. © Jean-Paul Goude
Final image. © Jean-Paul Goude

Using the same method, he gave African American model Carolina Beaumont oversized buttocks, which inspired the portrait of Kim Kardashian 40 years later, and stretched the neck of Mounia, Yves Saint Laurent’s muse, to create a half-woman, half-giraffe character. He also cut Rihanna’s silhouette into tiny strips for Vogue Paris. For Harper’s Bazaar, Katy Perry was made up to look like Andy Warhol’s portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, Mariah Carey was the subject of a Fragonard painting, while Oprah Winfrey paid homage to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and Rosie Huntington became Diana Vreeland in the arms of a Chinese opera star. Chance the Rapper, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Iman, and Chloë Sevigny joined in for the collaboration between Jean-Paul Goude, Kenzo, and H&M in 2016, as did Laetitia Casta for the Galeries Lafayette department store and Bjork for Mixte magazine.

Katy Perry for Harper’s Bazaar, September 2015. © Jean-Paul Goude

Jean-Paul Goude’s images have been exhibited in museums around the world, including at the Musée Cantini in Marseille in 1988, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2011 and the Centre Pompidou from 2014 through 2017 in Paris, the 21-21 Design Sight Museum in 2015 and the Nexus Hall in 2018 in Tokyo, and the PAC in Milan in 2015. One of his latest shows, which took place at the Palazzo Giureconsulti in Milan in 2019, was a triumph. In today’s world of Photoshop, the good doctor Goude prefers working by hand. He cuts up ektachromes, color film produced by Kodak, before assembling them with scotch tape and adding details using oil paint, he says. “I still work like the illustrator I have always been.”

Glimpses of America on Glossy Paper

As a teenager during the 1950s while living with his parents in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Mandé, Jean-Paul Goude systematically sketched his neighborhood friends and the outfits they wore to school. At home, his American mother, a former Broadway performer who had married a Frenchman and become a dance teacher, devoured Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Life, while trying to give her son ballet lessons, just in case he decided to become a professional dancer. He didn’t. A few years later, he enrolled at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs where he stayed for two years before the Printemps department stores commissioned him to paint murals on their walls. He made his advertising debut as a fashion illustrator for Franck & Fils and drew erotic scenes for Lui magazine, the French version of Playboy. In the late 1960s, his big break came from New York City with a “liberating phone call” from Harold Hayes. The editor of Esquire offered him the job of art director of his prestigious magazine. “I had no experience in that type of work,” says Jean-Paul Goude. “While I was a sort of expert in imagery, I knew absolutely nothing about typography or layouts.”

Jean-Paul Goude. © Antoine Legrand

Jean-Paul Goude arrived in New York in the fall of 1969. Working with French illustrators such as Jean Lagarrigue, Charles Matton, aka Gabriel Pasqualini, and Alain Le Saux in Paris, he formed a crack team who called the shots in the magazine world. “Our illustrations were like little paintings, different than anything the Americans were doing, and our work picked up a following very quickly. I was lucky enough to work directly with my hero George Lois, the legendary creative genius who had designed all of Esquire’s most sensational covers, and who eventually inspired the character of Don Draper in the show Mad Men.”

The Righter of Bodily Wrongs

The art director generally wears big pants cut off too short and elevated white buck shoes – a look he defined during his teenage years. Insecure about his small stature (“5 feet, 7 inches, with a low butt and a scrawny build”), he did everything he could to “correct his proportions” and lengthen his figure. This art of illusion became conceptual in the early 1970s when he started photographing his then-girlfriend, Radiah Frye. As she was “too small to be a model,” Jean-Paul Goude perched her on 14-inch platform shoes!

Radiah and the Jet Set, Esquire, March 1972. © Jean-Paul Goude

The photos were published in the March 1972 issue of Esquire with a six-page feature entitled “The French Correction,” a nod to William Friedkin’s movie released a few months earlier. In the article, Jean-Paul Goude presented his tricks of the trade – lifted shoes, fake white teeth, a fake rubber bellybutton, and padded underwear – and explained how “a shrimp” could become “a living fashion illustration” with Anthony Perkins’ figure and Frank Sinatra’s smile!

The “French Correction” was a huge hit in 1970s bodybuilding-crazed America, not only in the press with Esquire, but also through television. In 1972, Jean-Paul Goude was invited to demonstrate his work on the set of The Mike Douglas Show. “With the cameras rolling, I asked the model to take off his sweater but his shoulder pads fell to the floor in front of the astonished audience… It was one of the most embarrassing moment of my life,” says Jean-Paul Goude. “But I got what I wanted – to satisfy and amaze the public. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do today.”

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