By the time of the Wallis sitting, Man Ray had almost single-handedly
revolutionised the genres of portraiture and fashion photography, "There were no fixed boundaries between what he did for his art and what he did for commerce, and works were at times interchangeable." (Esten, p. 14.)
Man Ray, by 1936, had become the "Court Painter" of the Paris intelligentsia with legendary portraits of Picasso, Dali and Hemingway as well as the social elite, such as Peggy Guggenheim and the Vicomtesse de Noailles.
Barely five weeks after Edward acceded to the throne, Wallis perhaps found it convenient to be in Paris between March 1 to 14, away from the brewing constitutional storm in London. Carmel Snow, with the instinct of a great editor, planned this sitting with Man Ray. Wallis, with a flair for image-making, consented. Tellingly, Bazaar's caption of the May 1936 issue where the portraits appeared read: "Mrs. Ernest Simpson, the most famous American in London." Snow could have substituted "infamous."
Wallis Simpson, the obsessively thin, cool American with the chiselled features that were not conventionally pretty and yet mesmerised her generation, was the perfect subject for Man Ray's aesthetic. In the
three-quarter Man Ray portrait, Wallis is photographed in a black exotic Mainbocher dress against a coal-black background, a technical tour-de force. The dramatic lighting, worthy of his best surrealistic work, shows only her profile and hands. In the published version (Esten, p. 89,) Man Ray has placed to the left of Wallis an oversized angry Chinese deity seemingly scowling at her.
The standing portrait is a signature pose pioneered by Man Ray, as described by Carmel Snow: "He [Brodovitch] persuaded the avant-garde photographer Man Ray to make some of his strange, elongated compositions for us." Unsmiling, hand on hip, Wallis's stance is almost defiantly modern, and certainly illustrates the remark: "The model, as if a sculpture, is a cool and distant object." The contrast between the completely black and ivory luminousness of each half of the diptych harks back to the Noire Et Blanche motif that Man Ray famously published earlier.
The pair of portraits is presented here in its original morocco case, seemingly worn by daily use. It seems to have been a constant visual artifact lovingly preserved by the ex-King as a poignant memento of the woman for whom he had given up the throne.
John Esten, Man Ray, Bazaar Years, Preface by Willis Hartshorn, New York: Rizzoli, 1988.
Carmel Snow: The World of Carmel Snow, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.