“This is with clothes off, baby – there’s a big difference. Besides, the students don’t like the pretty, skinny ones. Artists prefer their models to have a lot of stuff on them.” The legendary Claifornian artist’s muse, Florence Wysinger “Flo” Allen (1913-1997).

Flo Allen by Beth Van Hoesen, 1973.

Born and raised in Oakland, California in 1913, “San Francisco’s best loved artists’ model”, Florence Wysinger “Flo” Allen (1913-1997), was a legendary black Californian artist’s muse who posed for virtually every prominent West Coast painter of the past half century.

Close-up photograph of Florence Allen’s upturned head, circa 1940s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
D E T A I L
Yasuo Kuniyoshi teaching a class at Mills College, 1949.

There was only one motivating factor for Florence “Flo” Wysinger Allen (1913-1997) when she first decided to be an artists model. It was, she said “mainly economic. I liked to eat”.

The going rate was 50 percent higher for nude modelling than for clothed – 75 cents an hour for nude compared to 50 cents an hour for clothed.

“Flo” was hungry. “Flo” went nude. In fact she preferred it because, she explained, “you can’t think with your clothes on.”

For 3 decades from 1933 until the mid 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area, Allen has was drawn, sketched, painted and sculpted by five decades of West Coast artists who make up a Who’s Who of modern art: Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, Ralph DuCasse, Mark Rothko, Diego Rivera, Gertrude Murphy and Wayne Thiebaud. Famously known for her extensive residence at San Francisco Art Institute, she also modelled at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and Mills College. 

At the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, she had a booth on the Gay Way, a small show called Candid Camera. Attendees would enter, and open a curtain would open to a nude Allen on display for them to photograph. “They’d come in and we’d have this little drape going, and they’d snap, snap, snap,” she told the SF Chronicle in 1978. The few remaining photos from that time, some of which are still considered highly provocative, are as rare as rocking horse shit and are now highly sought after, coveted collectors’ items. 

In 1945 she founded a craft union called the Model’s Guild and was largely through her efforts that pay improved for artist’s models. When she finished modelling for the day she’d head off to work as a hostess at restaurants on North Beach such as Washington Square Bar and Grill, the Old Spaghetti Factory on Green Street and The Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue. As well as being a artist’s model, restaurant hostess and union supporter, Flo was also a singer, an actress, and a civil rights activist  and her social circle included Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte and Allen Ginsberg. 

Flo was also an educator. She taught a course at CCA for prospective models, passing on her knowledge of “newd” modeling to generations of emerging artists’ models. 

There’s an art to this business,” said Flo, “There’s a hell of a lot more to it than skin and bones. It’s very difficult work. You find muscles you didn’t know you had. Just when you think you’re relaxed, the sweat starts running – and then you itch. The strain is tremendous”.

Flo would tell her students that the key to successful modelling is knowing “your body from stem to stern.” 

She didn’t want modelling students who either were or had aspirations to be fashion models.

“I shudder when they call.” Said Flo, we’d tell them, “This is with clothes off, baby – there’s a big difference. Besides, the students don’t like the pretty, skinny ones. Artists prefer their models to have a lot of stuff on them.”

Experience in the porn trade was also a no-no too. “There’s an old saying about female models,” she explained. “Some pose rose and some sunflower. When they pose sunflower, I don’t need them. You don’t show off all your wares, you know.”

Flo was a fixture on the local art scene until 1987, when she was struck by a truck while crossing a street in Fisherman’s Wharf. She broke both legs, severely restricting her mobility in her later years.

In 1987 while crossing a street near Fisherman’s Wharf, Flo was struck by a truck. She both her legs in the accident which restricted her mobility in the twilight years of her life.

Florence Allen facing away from camera, circa 1940s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Florence Allen picketing Yellow Cab stand, circa 1950s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 
Flo Allen Hip, Ruth Friedman Opper, c. 1940-1950’s.
Florence Allen in a belly dancing outfit, circa 1940s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 
Philipp Weisman, ‘Untitled,’ 1955. Oil painting believed to depict Florence Wysinger Allen. (Courtesy Pam Martin).
Yasuo Kuniyoshi teaching a class at Mills College, 1949.
Flo (Standing Woman), stone, c.1935,
Elizabeth Z. Dougherty.
© Oakland Museum of California.
Flo Allen, Ruth Friedmann Opper, c.1950’s.
Florence Allen in a sun hat, circa 1940s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Flo Allen, Backside, Ruth Friedmann Opper, c.1950’s.
Florence Allen with Harry Belafonte, circa 1950s. Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 
Flo Allen, Lamp, Shoe, Ruth Friedman Opper, c. 1940-1950.
Photograph of Florence Allen posing for a drawing class at the California School of Fine Arts, 1948 May 4. Harry Bowden.
Florence Allen papers, 1920-1997. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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