I re-read 'The Model' by W H Auden earlier today, and I was struck by how good it is. I've venerated Auden since I was sixteen, but I hadn't appreciated this poem properly until now.

I find myself fascinated by the question of whether Auden had a specific painting in mind while writing this poem. My mind jumps to Browning's 'My Last Duchess' and, indeed, Auden's own 'Musée des Beaux Arts' - although, in the latter case, the reference to a specific painting is explicit - in short order.

Does any authoritative source link this poem with a specific painting? Does any authoritative source state that Auden had no specific painting in mind?

1 Answer 1


George de La Tour: The Fortune Teller

Probably the painting is George de La Tour’s “The Fortune Teller”, whose most striking character is the elderly fortune teller. The first stanza works just fine with the La Tour painting if the young woman in the white kerchief is “translated” into a “kind gentleman” and the frowning young man having his fortune told, into a “frowning schoolgirl.”

  • 5
    I'd be interested in any evidence supporting this identification.
    – mikado
    Jun 9, 2021 at 16:05
  • Sorry. I did not read Tom Hosker's question carefully. I am not an authoritative source. Off-hand, I could not find one. Something to keep in mind: Auden is not writing about the "old lady" in this painting or in whatever painting inspired the poem. He is writing about the real person who was the painter's model for the old lady. Jun 9, 2021 at 17:14
  • There are other paintings which might be a closer match. For example, this one: Leonard Bramer: A fortune-teller reading a young girl's palm at a table, with three men watching. (Although I don't think it's that one because the fortune-teller isn't striking enough. But I don't think it's George de La Tour's, either, because she's telling a young man's fortune.)
    – Peter Shor
    Jun 9, 2021 at 17:38
  • The Auden poem does not identify the “old lady” as a palm-reader nor specify the gender of whosever palm is being read. Opting for the la Tour as Auden’s source is a stretch, granted. Four points in its favor: (1) “Reading palms” is the painting’s subject. (2) “Reading... faces/Is a job of translation” might hint at a gender-switch. (3) “Rice-fields in China, or a slum tenement” are settings compatible with the old lady’s physique and physiognomy. (4) The la Tour painting is famous and it’s in the NYC Met Museum, where Auden undoubtedly would have come across it. Jun 11, 2021 at 15:10

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