This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
A series of photos taken in the summer of 1937 captures a group of close friends enjoying a laid-back holiday in the South of France, swimming, relaxing and having fun. Most holidaymakers were artists, including Man Ray, Picasso and Dora Maar (who was also Picasso’s lover at the time).
Part of that circle was a lively woman whose name is not well known, but who was nevertheless an essential participant: Ady Fidelin, who also went through Adrienne. In the photos, she stands out for her beauty and also because, unlike her fellow vacationers, she was black.
Fidelin, a dancer, model and occasional actress, was Man Ray’s girlfriend and often posed for him. In hundreds of his photos, she dances or sits, occasionally with props such as hula hoops and hats. She is often naked or topless. Her exuberance shines through in every image.
Fidelin also posed for Man Ray’s own circle of artists, including the photographer Lee Miller, a former girlfriend of Man Ray; Roland Penrose, who would later marry Miller; British surrealist artist Eileen Agar; and the artist Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze, who passed through Wols.
“She was not just a muse to Man Ray,” Andrew Strauss, a consultant at Sotheby’s and chairman of the Man Ray Expertise Committee, said on the phone, “but a muse to artists in general.”
In a striking image of that 1937 trip, Man Ray photographed Fidelin standing outside against a wall, naked except for flats, daring earrings and a chunky link necklace, with a long washboard stretched across her legs like a metallic maxi skirt. Her depiction in the photo bore a striking resemblance to a Picasso painting done shortly afterwards, “Femme Assise sur Fond Jaune et Rose, II.”
“Ady is so present in the hundreds of photos from that summer — photos by Man Ray and by Roland Penrose and Lee Miller and Eileen Agar,” said Wendy A. Grossman, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who has lectured and written. about Fidelin and who exposed the connection between the painting and the photograph. “It was inevitable that she would also be portrayed by Picasso.”
And yet, “notably manifest in both the photograph and the painting,” Grossman wrote in 2020 in Modernism/modernity magazine, “is the contradictory way in which the black female body was folded into the modernist project as paradoxically ultramodern and ultra-” primitive’.” and objectified by a male gaze.”
In addition, Grossman noted, Fidelin was “hidden in plain sight,” and had never been identified as the subject of Picasso’s painting. But thanks in part to Grossman’s efforts, Fidelin is beginning to be recognized, including in a 2019 exhibition on black models at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
For Fidelin, nothing was more groundbreaking than a photo of her that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar on September 15, 1937. It is believed that this is the first time a black model has appeared in a major American fashion magazine. Today, however, the article would undoubtedly raise eyebrows. Under the headline “The Bushongo of Africa Sends His Hats to Paris” are three photos of white women wearing African hats. Fidelin, who also wore an African hat, appears on the facing page, separated from the others, it seems, though in a much larger picture.
That editorial placement and “the assimilation of Fidelin’s identity into a homogenizing notion of Blackness distinguishes her literally and figuratively from the white European models who are similarly crowned,” Grossman wrote.
Casimir Joseph Adrienne Fidelin was born on March 4, 1915, in Pointe-à-Pitre, on the island of Grande-Terre in Guadeloupe, the French-administered archipelago in the Caribbean. She was one of six children born to Maxime Louis Fidelin, who worked at a bank, and Mathilde Fidelin, a homemaker. Ady’s mother died in a hurricane in 1928; her father died a few years later. Fidelin then emigrated to France, where a sibling already lived.
Paris in the 1930s was racially inclusive for the time, especially in Man Ray’s bohemian scene. Black artists such as Aïcha Goblet and Ruby Richards were popular, and Man Ray photographed them as well. It’s not exactly clear how he met Fidelin, who was 25 years his junior, but for him their relationship was stable and optimistic, especially when World War II broke out.
Fidelin, Man Ray wrote in a letter to Penrose, “loves me to be pessimistic.”
“She does everything,” he said, “from polishing my shoes and bringing me breakfast to painting backgrounds on my large canvases! All to the tune of a beguine or a rumba.”
As the story goes, when Fidelin first met Picasso, who was a friend of Man Ray, “she went up to him, put her arms around his neck and said, ‘I hear you’re a pretty good painter'”, wrote Eileen Agar. in her autobiography.
She was, Grossman said, “intimidated by no one.”
Fidelin was more than just a pretty face. In 1940, during the war, Man Ray, who was Jewish and American (born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia), left for the United States. Fidelin stayed behind and helped protect many of his possessions, including negatives and prints.
“She saved everything, the entire studio,” Francis M. Naumann, an art historian and author of several books about Man Ray and his close friend Marcel Duchamp, said in an interview.
She wasn’t responsible for every piece of art — some were brought from France, others were entrusted to another friend — but without her preservation, Strauss said, “we’d be missing a whole lot of Dada and Surrealist paintings, drawings, and artifacts.”
And she was “pretty intelligent,” said Ami Bouhassane, director of Farleys House & Gallery, which oversees the Lee Miller Archives, especially in the way she “navigated the strangeness of the Surrealist group and their politics.”
Fidelin also had a more pensive side: she had a habit of going to cemeteries every now and then. “It wasn’t that she was particularly pessimistic,” Agar wrote, “but rather that graveyards gave her a great sense of peace and tranquility.”
After Man Ray left, the pair wrote each other letters — he called her “my adored love” and she told him, “You are always sorely missed by a certain little black girl” — but most of the notes were not received, in part because of the chaos of war. By the time Man Ray returned to Paris for a visit in 1947, both had other partners. Fidelin was in a relationship with André Art, a businessman, and began to move away from her circle of artistic friends, many of whom had dispersed during the war.
She married Art in 1958 and they moved to Albi, about 450 miles south of Paris, where they lived in council housing. At one point, she had health problems that required extensive surgery. Throughout her later years, she kept a low profile. When a former assistant to Man Ray was asked about her in 1998, the assistant thought she had died.
Fidelin died on February 5, 2004 in an assisted care facility not far from her home. She was 88. No major newspaper reported her death.
“She had basically drifted away from the community of creatives she’d been such an integral part of,” Grossman said. “The end of her life was very much apart from, and far from, the limelight she had been involved in.”