About five years ago, in a Brooklyn loft overlooking the East River, the artist Skye Ferrante was working on his latest creation, studying a nude model and twisting an elongated piece of wire to create an intricate sculpture.
Mr. Ferrante, who divides his time between London, New York and Paris, had sculpted similar nude portraits of dozens of women, many of whom worked in New York’s burlesque scene. This particular model, a Brooklyn resident who asked to be identified only as Josephine, a name she sometimes used professionally, had dabbled in high-end prostitution.
Now, Josephine had a different business proposition in mind: She suggested selling the portrait to one of her clients, a wealthy man who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“I put down my pliers and said, ‘Please, tell me more,’” Mr. Ferrante, 43, recalled recently.Continue reading the main story
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Josephine approached her client, and soon struck a deal: The man would pay $10,000 for the sculpture, and she would split the money equally with Mr. Ferrante.
Since Mr. Ferrante learned about Josephine’s other job, several models who work as escorts, some of them mistresses of married men, have also offered to sell his pieces to their clients.
At least some of the sculptures were then displayed in the buyers’ homes, with few who saw the pieces knowing what had inspired them.
Ziad, a married man who lives in France and asked that his last name not be used, bought one of Mr. Ferrante’s wire sculptures modeled after his mistress. He said in an interview that he felt the piece was beautifully constructed. Its depiction of the woman, her hair unruly and her eyes closed, was abstract enough for anyone to appreciate, but realistic enough that he — though not his wife — could still recognize her.
Ziad, 40, said his wife liked the sculpture, adding quickly that she “doesn’t know anything about it.”
Mr. Ferrante said the models, who asked that their true names not be used because of the nature of their work, had helped sell more than a half-dozen of his pieces, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars that the women split with him.
“They have connections to more money than any of the galleries anyway,” Mr. Ferrante said, adding that he would rather share his proceeds with his models than with a broker. “By turning the model into an art dealer, we’re cutting out the middleman.”
For Mr. Ferrante, the transactions are a welcome alternative to the established art world, in which, he said, dealer representation is increasingly hard to come by, and galleries often take as much as half of an artist’s earnings.
Such exchanges, historians and local artists said, reflected a hidden but not unprecedented intersection of mainstream art and high-end prostitution, extending from New York to Moscow and beyond.
The concept of men commissioning portraits of their mistresses is far from unusual, said Andrew Lear, a former classics professor at New York University and founder and president of Shady Ladies Tours, which offers tours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focus on the role of sex and sexuality in art. Courtesans abound in artwork as far back as the 18th century, Mr. Lear said.
One example on display at the Met, he said, is Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Grace Dalrymple Elliott from the 1700s. The painting, according to the Met’s website, “was apparently commissioned by her lover, the first marquis of Cholmondeley.”
Though he had not heard of a modern-day example before learning of Mr. Ferrante’s work, Mr. Lear said the transactions provided several parallels with the past. “It’s interesting that maybe things have changed less than we think,” he said.
A 25-year-old Ukrainian woman, Olga, a name she sometimes uses professionally, who lives in Moscow, said she had been a high-end escort since she was a teenager. She said she currently had three steady clients, including Ziad in France.
Olga said she had met Mr. Ferrante about two years ago at a networking party in New York, and had posed for him since then in New York and in Paris. While in Paris with Ziad, she took him to Mr. Ferrante’s studio to see a sculpted portrait of her. Ziad bought the piece for $10,000.
“If he likes something, he doesn’t mind how much it costs, he just buys,” Olga said. “Girls like us, we are always surrounded by rich men.”
Ziad, who works in real estate, said he had hung the portrait on a corridor wall in his Paris home, where he lives with his wife.
“It is a reminder of her,” Ziad said of Olga. “But it was also a nice piece of art.”
Of the roughly 300 models who have posed for Mr. Ferrante, he said that about a quarter told him that they had side jobs in “all manner of erotic and sexual work.” Dozens of his models — prostitutes or not — had helped sell sculptures to friends and acquaintances, he said.
But the women who work as escorts provide direct access to potential clients with personal connections to the subject of Mr. Ferrante’s portraits, and the ability to pay for them.
In an apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn this month, Mr. Ferrante worked on another wire portrait, with two nude models precisely arranged on the bed before him, a fringed sheet draped over their bodies.
Each wire portrait takes Mr. Ferrante about three hours to complete, and he sometimes works until his fingers bleed. With one pair of pliers in his mouth, and another in his hand, he carefully twisted and wound a single continuous wire, making occasional flourishes with his hand. He took sips of rosé as he spoke about the blurred lines of the art world.
“The story that exists on the client’s wall, I don’t know anymore,” he said. “If the sale is made and I’m not asking questions, it really doesn’t matter.”
David King Reuben, a New York City artist who commissioned Mr. Ferrante to create a portrait of himself, said that Mr. Ferrante’s work reflected a convergence of representative art with modern abstract art. A sculpture, for example, is seen by many as an inanimate object of beauty in itself, detached from the piece’s subject or purpose.
“Of course that’s a reason why when a man gives it to his wife she says, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful,’” Mr. Reuben said. “But it absolutely has a purpose.”
Josephine said that her client displayed the sculpture on a wall in his apartment, which he shared with his wife.
“It’s more discreet than having a nice photo on your phone,” Josephine said. “There’s a little bit of that, like a mind game.”Continue reading the main story