Posing for a Nude Portrait Taught Me to Separate Desire From Intimacy
When Jack drew Rose like one of his French girls, he didn’t just sketch her; he saw her. It’s a level of intimacy that doesn’t need desire—but that doesn’t make it any less erotic.
To say Titanic was a formative experience for those of us who were teenagers back in 1997 is an understatement. The James Cameron film went on to gross over $1.84 billion at the world box office, win eleven Oscars, and all but dominate the pop culture landscape for the better part of a year. Even in Bogotá, you couldn’t walk into any store or attend any social gathering without hearing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and enduring yet another conversation about the romantic tragedy at the center of this unlikeliest of blockbusters.
Jack and Rose (played by icy-blue-eyed teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio and English rose incarnate Kate Winslet) were fixtures in notebooks, posters, and daydreams alike. Hormones may have dictated I swoon for Leo, but when I left the theater with my sister after watching the three-hour epic, I was enamored with Winslet. Or rather, enamored with her Rose and the vision of desire she portrays on screen. More than yearning to find myself someone who’d never let go, I left Titanic wanting to find someone who’d look at (and draw) me the way Jack does her.
The first time we see Rose Dawson (née DeWitt Bukater), she is but a sketch. Brock Lovett (played by Bill Paxton), a Titanic obsessive who’s searching for the “Heart of the Ocean” diamond, examines a flimsy piece of paper. It’s one among many that his diving crew retrieved from a safe that sank with the ship on that fateful 1912 maiden voyage.
The paper is the sketch, a portrait of a young woman. She’s wearing nothing but the diamond that continues to elude Lovett. It is that same sketch, displayed on television, that catches the eye of an older woman miles away. She stops midway through her pottery and turns her attention to the TV, where a vision of herself stares right back at her.
“Should this have remained unseen at the bottom of the ocean for eternity?” Lovett asks himself rhetorically on a TV news broadcast, posing one of the many blunt meta-questions Cameron litters throughout his screenplay. Little does he know that this older Rose (played by Gloria Stuart) holds the key to what he’s long been seeking.
This portrait is the film: how it was created, how it ended in the safe, what it represents, what it obscures. Every question it raises is key to Cameron’s plot of star-crossed lovers, as well as to the film’s archeological interests. Titanic is a film about what remains.
Cameron’s decision to frame Jack’s and Rose’s story with a treasure dive isn’t just a tidy narrative device. It speaks to his interest in the history objects can tell. It helps, of course, that it is also at the heart of the film’s most arresting scene—the one that left me agog when I first saw it and to which I return every time I revisit the film.
“I want you to draw me like one of your French girls,” Rose asks Jack, the young man who first saved her from an ill-conceived suicide attempt, who has now seduced her enough to imagine a world outside of the well-to-do marriage arranged for her.
Rose had complimented Jack on his sketches, many of them of Parisian women that had posed nude for him.
“You have a gift, Jack,” she’d told him. “You see people.” For a young woman bemoaning the inertia of her life, one where no one really sees or notices her, Jack’s perspicuity is not only endearing. It’s intoxicating.
“You have a gift, Jack,” she’d told him. “You see people.”
By the time she disrobes and lays down on a couch in the pose we’ve grown so familiar with (in a sketch drawn by Cameron himself, no less!), you can see why the image of Jack working away with his pencil was so ingrained in her memory. Before we ever see how Jack earned himself a ticket on the Titanic, we see his piercing glance from above his sketchbook haunting old Rose’s memories as she prepares to tell her story.
The script reads, “It is an image she will carry the rest of her life.”
He eyes me up and down, concentrated on the task at hand. It’s clear he’s done this before and I’m struck by the way his efficiency doesn’t come off as mechanical. There’s a meditative aspect to it, almost. I look out the windows to my left, attempting not to move, wanting to embrace the stillness of the moment.
It dawns on me that I should’ve chosen a more comfortable pose. It’s easy to see why Jack wanted Rose laying down on the couch. Less chance for movement. Less likelihood of cramps. Alas, John and I have opted for a standing pose, with my hands behind my head (not unlike Rose, I let myself admit).
Wearing nothing (no, not even a diamond necklace) in front of someone you just met is terrifying. But also exciting. Almost too exciting; we have to give my body some time to calm down before John could start working away on his pencil sketches and his watercolor studies. As we continue to make at times awkward eye contact, I think back to that famous Titanic scene.
“Eyes on me,” Jack instructs Rose.
As Cameron’s camera cuts between Jack’s laser-focused attention and Rose’s beguiled look, it strikes me that the reason the scene feels so erotic has nothing to do with Winslet’s nudity. It has everything to do with the electrifying way in which DiCaprio gazes at Winslet. Not with lust, exactly (though he does blush). But not without lust.
That’s precisely what I felt while posing for that very first nude portrait. It didn’t matter that John, who’s since become a friend, wasn’t looking to hook up. (He was working on a watercolor of me for my boyfriend on our anniversary, after all). It mattered that his entire purpose during the hour-long session we spent together was to look at me. To see me as perhaps I didn’t dare see myself.
“The last thing I need is another picture of me looking like a porcelain doll,” Rose tells Jack, before losing her silk kimono. She knows that to have her naked body seen and drawn by an artist was in itself a way to break free from the tradition her clothes so aptly exemplified. Long gone is the constricting corset. So is her bashfulness.
John’s work had first come my way as I scrolled through Instagram, when his watercolors had caught my eye. I was brainstorming out-of-the-box anniversary ideas and the concept for the portrait took hold. Even before we’d finished with our session, I was craving to pose for him again.
It was empowering and flattering at the same time. Posing for a nude necessarily requires a lack of vanity that seems to go against the very narcissistic impulse we associate with wanting others (and ourselves) to ogle our naked bodies. By agreeing to become the subject of a nude figure portrait, you leave your body and your vulnerability at the mercy of the artist. Perhaps the narcissistic impulse gets shifted, as it becomes flattering to think of oneself as a muse and as a future object to be lusted after.
Much like the rapt audience who listens to old Rose’s scandalous story about posing for Jack, I’ve had to reassure people that it’s always an entirely professional interaction. Despite it never spilling over into more sexual territory, I still feel the hint of eroticism whenever I tug at my briefs and take them off in front of an artist.
Yes, there’s still the feeling of novelty of stripping, but there’s also the knowledge that the moments I’ll spend with them will encourage both a feeling of being wholly present and absent. In many ways, one grounds oneself in a pose. But as the artist is the one at work, it encourages a wavering and wandering mind. It’s a moment of intimate connection that is also dependent on boundaries and distance. In one’s nakedness, one hopes to dispose of any posturing; in the stillness of modeling one cannot help but do so.
That’s why Rose’s gaze seems aimed at, but also beyond Jack. It’s why, upon seeing the finished sketch (which is a far cry from the impressionism of Monet and cubism of Picasso, both artists we’ve been shown she adores), she cannot help but be moved. Per Cameron’s screenplay, “He has X-rayed her soul.”
Last year, during World Naked Gardening Day, Phil, a mutual friend of John’s and mine, invited a bunch of queer people over to celebrate. There’d be drinks. There’d be gardening tips. There was a simple price of entry: one’s clothes.
Phil and I had the joint pleasure of having written prefaces for John’s latest book of nude figure portraits: We’d both been recently drawn by him and had, in turn, sketched him; the book is called Draw Me/Draw You and includes twenty-four such paired portraits. Which is to say, neither of us were strangers to the prospect of dropping trou around fellow queer artists.
What made Phil’s gathering different was that he multiplied such an interaction. Rather than merely getting a bunch of guys (by his own admission, Phil wished more than the one queer woman had shown up) to a venue and hang around naked, he staged the entire afternoon as a zine-making project. Photographers would be snapping pictures, artists would be drawing from life, and by the end of the day, we’d all have enough material to create something tangible.
You can now buy your own copy of the first issue of Phil’s Natural Pursuits zine.
If posing for John had first introduced me to the titillating feeling of being seen in a chastely erotic way one-on-one, this nudist party clarified something that wasn’t as clear. As I stared around the naked queer men around me, I realized how misguided my own conflation of desire and intimacy had been. After all, many of us are only ever naked with others when seeking sexual intimacy; once that’s out the window, it’s easy to see how silly it is to ever equate the erotic with the sexual.
Rose, in fact, had made the same mistake. When she first sees Jack’s nude drawings, she tries to make sense of the intimacy Jack has captured in the only way she knows how.
“I think you must have had a love affair with her,” she suggests.
“No no no no,” he protests. “Only with her hands.”
We have no vocabulary to talk about that kind of intense intimacy that can be captured in nude figure portraiture without resorting to sexual innuendo. Whenever friends learn I’ve posed nude for artists, they raise their eyebrows and all but wink at me. Just as with Titanic, the assumption is that the connection between model and artist will have irrevocably led to more. But that’s as much a failure of our collective imagination as it is a failure of how we codify intimacies that skirt the line of propriety within a society that conflates nudity and sex.
But that’s as much a failure of our collective imagination as it is a failure of how we codify intimacies that skirt the line of propriety within a society that conflates nudity and sex.
During the World Naked Gardening party, there was much talk about nudists. Some who attended regularly visited Sandy Hook in the summers, enjoying the freedom (and lack of tan lines) it affords. Others talked about resorts down in Florida and clothes-check parties in Chelsea worth checking out. I myself have gone with friends to the Spa Castle out in Queens where its steam rooms and hot tubs are in a no-clothes area.
Yet those spaces don’t have the same pull for me as the kind of environment John and Phil have staged at the party. It’s the kind that demands not the ability to forget you’re naked, but the kind that demands you acknowledge and pay close attention to said nakedness. It’s the locker room without competition. The bathhouse without ulterior motives. The bedroom without insecurities.
A few months back, John invited a few of us to his apartment for a drink-and-draw night. As with Phil’s gathering, the only price of admission was our clothes. And, of course, the commitment to both sketch and pose for those in attendance.
Yet again, I found it liberating to ogle those around me and to offer my own body in return. It was a convivial get-together, a safe space that, grounded as it was on artistic expression, took the edge of the lascivious thoughts and gazes that so freely were shared within us.
John was careful to frame the evening in non-sexual terms. He confessed that it is, at times, hard for other people to understand. The specifics of the queer male intimacy he encourages is a rare thing, oft-spoken of in utopian terms or couched in pornographic scenarios. Why else, after all, would you welcome a half a dozen naked gay men into your apartment if not for sex?
When I first saw the scintillating scene between Rose and Jack in a darkened theater in Bogotá, I craved finding someone who’d look at me the way Jack stares at Rose. First, from afar, when he catches her eye on the deck, and later on, of course, as she lays naked before him.
What I didn’t quite understand back then was that those gazes need not be found only in sweeping romantic epics. Despite Cameron’s cloying ending (where a young, presumably ghostly, Rose meets up with her 1912 paramour in a restored Titanic populated by all the people who died on its maiden voyage), the story of Rose Dawson didn’t end with that icy blue-eyed heartthrob. As the pictures next to her bed attest, she lived a full life, with many romances and adventures beyond the tragedy she witnessed in the Atlantic.
The portrait and the love story is pivotal, yes, but more for what it taught her than for what it was. Right before she gets a look at Jack’s Parisian sketches, she bemoans the way her life ahead feels much too constricting; a marriage has been arranged, “and all the while,” she says, “I feel I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming at the top of my lungs and no one even looks up.”
It explains why the moment when someone paused to see her—to really see her as she wished she could be seen and desired—stayed with Rose Dawson (née DeWitt Bukater). Jack gave her the gift of feeling seen, which is exactly how I feel whenever an artist’s eyes trail their way down my own body. It’s as addicting as it is nourishing, and I don’t even have to suffer through an iceberg right away to feel the erotic weight of that gaze. But devoid of any follow-through, it’s also much more palatable. A memory to tuck away when you’re feeling down, or ugly, or unwanted. “It was the most erotic moment of my life,” Rose confesses. “Up till then at least.”
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and a cultural reporter based in New York City. His academic work on queer film fandom has appeared in Genre and GLQ, while his work of cultural criticism has been featured in The Atlantic, Film Quarterly, Esquire, Pacific Standard, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a regular contributor to Remezcla where he covers Latin American cinema and U.S. Latino media culture, and Electric Literature, where he writes about book-to-film adaptations. He has a Ph.D. but doesn't like to brag about it.