“Without a muse, an artist is simply a madman shouting to the stars.” ~ Ross Baldwin.
For centuries, muses have been responsible for rekindling the creative spark in artists, inspiring them to paint and guiding them through their creative process. From mythical creatures to enchanting real life beauties, history has witnessed innumerable muses in the feminine form that have captured many an artist’s fancy. The muse has the ability to renew an artist’s passion for art, thereby helpinghim or her to create memorable masterpieces. It is the oxygen to the artistic soul without which it will breathe its last.
The word “muse” originates from Greek and Roman mythology, where it was used to describe goddesses presiding over artistic disciplines. But anything or anyone can serve as the artist’s source of inspiration. Even though many men have been known to provide inspiration, the female form continues to pose as a muse for most artists. From lovers to spouses to friends, inspiration can come in many moulds.
Looking back in history, Andrea del Sarto, an Italian painter born in 1486, was married to his muse, Lucrezia, whose features very closely resembled his ideal female figure at a time when most other painters were building their beautiful female images on the well-loved bodies of boys. Since then, artists of the likes of Rubens, Bonnard, Renoir, Charles Blackman and Brett Whiteley have painted their wives over and over again, but their wives were their subjects rather than their muses.
To commemorate Women’s Day and Women’s week, here’s the story of some of the most stunning female muses from history who have navigated artists towards becoming the architects of several great works of art. This post, which is first of a two part series, will cover the influential women who inspired art in the early part of the Modern Era.
Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612-1642)
Saskia van Uylenburgh was Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s wife and muse. From drawings of Saskia lying in bed to allegorical paintings, he managed to show his love for his wife by depicting these works in tender, loving manners.
Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)
Elizabeth Siddal, commonly known as Lizzie, was also an artist. Inspiring many Pre-Raphaelites, including Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, Lizzie truly inspired her husband, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In one of his most famous paintings Beata Beatrix, created after Lizzie died, Rossetti modeled the character Beatrice Portinari after Lizzie as a tribute.
Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)
A painter herself, she modeled for several paintings by Édouard Manet. Among these, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1862–63) and Olympia feature a nude Victorine in a nonchalant manner, which was quite shocking for the time. His Olympia (1863) shows a nude white woman (recognizably Meurent) lying on a bed as a black servant brings her flowers. In Street Singer (1862), Meurent poses as a woman on the fringes of society, provocatively eating ripe cherries as she holds a guitar. This painting, which shows a hungry girl with dark shadows around her eyes, could represent later years of Meurent’s life when she fell into poverty, appealing in vain for funds from Manet’s widow. She also modeled for painters Edgar Degas and Alfred Stevens.
Amelie Gautreau – aka Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (1859–1915)
Parisian socialite and renowned beauty Amelie Gautreau was the ‘Madame X’ in John Singer Sargent’s iconic 1884 portrait of that name. The painting sparked a scandal as Gautreau’s clothing was considered “flagrantly insufficient”. She was a striking beauty famous for her unnaturally pale look which was attributed to consumption small amounts of arsenic. But it was later confirmed that she dusted herself with lavender-tinted rice powder. It is believed that in the painting Madame X, Gautreau’s exposed ear is pink because she rouged her ears to avoid “giving away the natural tone of her un-powdered, naked skin”.
Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Camille Claudel was an important artist in her own right, but her work was often overshadowed by her relationship with her mentor, Auguste Rodin. Rodin made several sculptures depicting Claudel, including Portrait of Camille with a Bonnet (1886).
Emilie Louise Flöge (1874-1952)
Emilie Louise Flöge was an Austrian fashion designer, and businesswoman, as well as a partner of Gustav Klimt. She is shown in his 1908 masterwork The Kiss,which portrays the couple as lovers ensconced in glimmering gold.
Klimt also depicted her in a 1902 painting titled Emilie Flöge. Flöge’s pointed features and flat virgin body are encountered often in Klimt’s pseudo-erotic paintings tantalizingly glimpsed through elaborate surface patterning.
Hers is the blank mask at the centre of his 1913 picture, The Virgin. As often with Klimt, the unconscious face is set at right angles to the neck, as if the model had been hanged. On her pedestal, swathed in fabric designed by the master, Flöge is a debased version of the muse as a fashionista.
Audrey Munson (1891–1996)
Known as ‘Miss Manhattan’ and the ‘Panama-Pacific girl,’ Munson was the most popular model of her day. ‘Discovered’ when she was 15 years old, Munson first posed for sculptor Isidore Konti and became Alexander Stirling Calder’s preferred model. In 1915 Munson provoked a crisis among the censors of the American film industry when she played an artist’s muse in Inspiration – becoming the first woman to appear fully nude in a (non-pornographic) motion picture.
The female muse is one of the most romanticized figures in art history and in the past, male artists have predominantly hogged the creative limelight at their expense. During Renaissance and the period of Romanticism, muses were represented sensually and quite often erotically, thereby objectifying them to a large extent and reducing their role to a mere physical level.
Famous artist-muse couples like Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, Camille Claudel and Rodin are etched in art history, but we usually overlook these women as artists in their own right, not to mention human beings with their own identity. Sadly enough, they are remembered merely as models, lovers and muses.
However, with time, the once objectified female muse transformed into a strong, fierce woman who stood up for her rights and honor against the oppression of the society. Modern art is marked with such bold and emancipated figures that have made a place for themselves in the male dominated world. More about them in the second part of this post, so stay tuned!
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