Since the ancient times, muses have been inspiring not only artists but writers and scientist as well. They were considered wise divinities capable of providing, or rather guiding, a certain individual through the hardship of creative process. A muse was celebrated, honored and often depicted as an enchanting woman full of pride and honor. When Renaissance brought the resurrection of Antiquity, the depiction of the muses became standardized in sculpture and painting, and they were often complemented by props or emblems.
However, it wasn’t until the Romanticism that the muses became an important part of paintings and sculptures, while Modernism brought muses of flesh and blood who were usually relatives, spouses or lovers of the artists. Interestingly so, these women played a notable role in some artistic practices, since they did more than just posed and inspired; as a matter of fact, they suggested and in some cases navigated the careers of the artists who represented them.
The muse was often presented in sensual, often eroticized poses, which brings us to a certain ambiguity of their role. On one hand, they were often fierce women who proudly stood out of the constraints of the society, while on the other hand their role could be easily manipulated with in a physical or psychological sense. Whatever the case was, modern art is marked by the presence of muses, often self-realized and emancipated women who used their role to somehow distinguish themselves.
These nine muses, one of them being a man, examine the muse phenomenon among the artists of the 20th century.
Editors’ Tip: Muses: Women Who Inspire
The stories of thirty-three women who enthralled society’s artistic geniuses and thus inspired the creation of some of the greatest works of the past two centuries. American Lee Miller was a successful model before traveling to Paris to become the apprentice, lover, and muse of Man Ray; Nancy Cunard, British writer, heiress, and political activist, was a lover to numerous members of the twentieth century’s art and literary circles, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; Parisian-born artist and poet Dora Maar had a profound influence on her infamous lover, Pablo Picasso.
Featured images: Heinrich Bohler - Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge, 1909, detail. Image via creative commons
The first muse on our list was Alice Prin or better known as Kiki de Montparnasse. Although this outstanding figure was of humble descent, she managed to become one of the leading figures of Parisian cultural circles. During the 1920s she was the most prominent model in the French capital, and was depicted by a great number of artists such as Tsuguharu Foujita, Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Arno Breker, Alexander Calder, just to mention the few.
Kiki is best known for being a model and partner of Man Ray. She was featured in experimental movies such as Fernand Léger's Ballet mécanique, was a nightclub singer, memoirist, and even a painter. It is not unusual that this icon of style, decadence and pride was called the Queen of Montparnasse since her activity was truly radical and emancipatory in the broader social and political context of the roaring twenties.
Featured image: Gustaw Gwozdecki - Alice Prin, circa 1920. Image creative commons
Marie-Thérèse Walter was the lover and model of Pablo Picasso and the mother of their child Maya Widmaier-Picasso. The two met in 1927 when Marie was seventeen years old; Picasso was forty-five and married to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova.
Their affair was a secret the whole time, although the young girl lived in an apartment next door to Picasso’s art dealer and friend, Paul Rosenberg. During that time, Marie was his model and muse for both paintings and sculptures. In 1935, Picasso and Marie's daughter Maya or María de la Concepción was born, and the child also modeled for some of his paintings such as Maya with Doll (1938). Their relation fell apart after Picasso started seeing Dora Marr.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso – Woman With a Book, 1932. Oil on canvas. Image via Flickr.
Victorine-Louise Meurent was a French painter and a famous artistic model. She is best known for being an inspiration of Édouard Manet; she started modeling at the age of sixteen in the studio of Thomas Couture. Meurent is present on Manet’s best-known works such as The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia. The first time Victorine-Louise Meurent posed for Manet was in 1862 for his painting The Street Singer, and the two worked together until 1870 when she started pursuing her own career as an artist and regularly exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon.
Featured image: Edouard Manet - Portrait of Victorine Meurent, 1862. Image via creative commons
Emilie Louise Flöge was an Austrian fashion designer, and businesswoman, as well as a partner of the painter Gustav Klimt. During the first decade of the 20th century, she owned the haute couture fashion salon together with her sister in one of the major Viennese streets. The saloon offered highly modern attire done in the style of the Wiener Werkstätte.
Flöge belonged to the Viennese bohemian and Fin de siècle circles, and was naturally portrayed in many works made by Klimt; there were even propositions by the scholars that the famous painting Kiss features the artist and Emilie Flöge as lovers.
Featured image: Gustav Klimt - Portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge, 1902. Image via creative commons
One of the leading American modernist painters of the early twentieth century was definitely Georgia O’Keeffe. Her entire oeuvre is marked by the use of new pictorial language influenced by immediate environment. However, her career boomed when O’Keeffe exhibited her works for the first time in New York, which was enabled by Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer, and photographer. Although the two married in 1924, practically since they met he became dazzled with O'Keeffe and photographed her obsessively between 1918 and 1925.
Featured image: Alfred Stieglitz – Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Image via creative commons
Next up is the famous artist Gala Diakonova better known as Gala Dali. This fascinating persona initially left Moscow and went to Switzerland since she suffered from tuberculosis. Out there she met a writer Paul Éluard and fell in love with him, and it was him who introduced her to the Surrealist movement. She was a captivating personality and a large number of artists were inspired by her, such as Louis Aragon, Max Ernst, and André Breton.
For three years, Gala lived in a ménage à trois with Éluard, and Ernst until she met Salvador Dalí, a young Surrealist painter in Spain in 1929. From that day on and practically throughout his entire career she served as a muse and those portraits of her are perhaps the most sensual depictions of a middle-aged woman in Western art.
Featured image: Salvador Dali - Gala leaning out the window, sculpture bin Marbella. Image via creative commons
The muse of the American artist Andrew Wyeth was a German model Helga Testorf. For fifteen years, he worked on The Helga Pictures, series of more than two hundred and forty drawings and paintings of the model. Helga was Wyeth’s neighbor, and the artist depicted her in various poses indoors and out of doors, nude and clothed. Interestingly so, the sessions were a secret even to their spouses, and the works were located at the home of Frolic Weymouth who was his student, neighbor, and a good friend.
Featured image: Andrew Wyeth - Braids (Helga Testorf), 1979. Dry-brush watercolor. Image via Flickr.
The only man on this list is a social misfit George Dyer, who was the muse of Francis Bacon. Two of them met in 1963 at a pub, and soon they fell for each other; both of them were great consumers of alcohol and were obsessive of their appearance. As Bacon focused more on the portraits of his friend in the mid-1960s naturally Dyer became a dominant figure in his work. Their relation was indeed complicated, but it ended in tragedy; in 1971 after the opening of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais, Bacon found Dyer in the bathroom dead.
Featured image: Francis Bacon - Portrait of George Dyer Talking, 1966. Image via creative commons
The last muse on our list is no other than the iconic 1960s figure Edie Sedgwick. She came from a privileged, yet highly conservative and rigid background. Shortly after started living in New York, Sedgwick met Andy Warhol in 1965 at a party at Lester Persky's apartment. They became friends and the Pop prince proclaimed her to be his Superstar. She starred in several of his underground, experimental films such as Poor Little Rich Girl and Kitchen, and was recognized by the mainstream media for her authentic sense of fashion. The collaboration with Warhol was brief, yet it made her an icon of the 1960s. Sedgwick struggled to become a professional actress, yet she had issues with drug abuse and in 1971 she tragically passed away due to an overdose.
Featured image: Portrait of Edie Sedgwick. Image via creative commons