In contrast to the established ideal of the artist genius personified as male, traditionally in Western art the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. While fetishized as the inspiration of the master, the role of the muse can often mask a much darker reality for women.
Elizabeth Siddal is perhaps most well known as the ‘flame haired English muse’ of the Pre-Raphaelites, having modelled for paintings by many within the Brotherhood, including her husband Gabriel Rossetti. Siddal, however, was also an artist and poet in her own right whose work is only beginning to be fully recognised. Despite her artistic abilities, the pressures of being a popular model in a culture that emphasised youth and beauty over female skills, impacted her greatly. Siddal’s fears of being usurped by a younger, more beautiful female model, plus the loss of her child, lead not only to her production of heart rendering poetry, but also manifested in addiction, depression and eventually suicide.
Rossetti’s Wedding Portrait of Siddal, 1860
The muse, while being the object of desire and inspiration, is also an empty canvas to be manipulated by the whims and shaped by the expressions of the creator.
Known as ‘Picasso’s muse’ Dora Maar, a hugely inventive artist and Surrealist photographer, likewise suffered from her role in the life of a male painter. Not only did her association with Picasso overshadow her own talents, but his well-documented womanising and ill treatment of the women in his life certainly took its toll on the female artist professionally and personally. Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that Picasso so often represented Maar, his most utilised model, in tears.
The Weeping Woman, 1937 by Pablo Picasso
The artist commands the active role in this relationship and therefore the muse assumes the role of passive and decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears.
Like Maar, until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel has been largely side-lined by a focus on her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin. As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to his mistress and muse, within the backdrop of the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. Their later relationship breakdown, coupled with professional jealously and a cruel family resulted in the female sculptor being placed, seemingly without reason, in an asylum for her remaining 30 years. Many now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two.
Mask of Camille Claudel, c.1895 by Rodin
The role of the muse is not only to provide inspiration, but often sexual, emotional and practical comfort too.
As US painter Anna Lee Merritt stated in 1900. “The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters …It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help”.
While not regarded as simply muses, the artist wives of husband artists are often either ignored or only perceived through male creativity. Viewed in the headlines of a 1930’s newspaper, Frida Kahlo was defined as a mere dabbling hobby artist next to her husband, the master artist Diego. Even recently, Lee Krasner was labelled as “wife of Jackson Pollock” at the Tate Modern, while in the same room Jackson Pollock was not likewise associated with Krasner. There are countless examples of ‘labelled’ or ‘lost wives’. Arts and Crafts artist/embroiderer Jane Morris has largely been disappeared behind her celebrated designer husband William despite contributing to and enabled many of his ideas. Glasgow School artist Margaret MacDonald’s partner, Charles Mackintosh, was also the one who received international acclaim. (Though at least her husband did recognise his wife’s ability: “Margaret has genius, I have only talent.”).
It is commonly the result of female sacrifice that the male heroic figure is created.
On being overshadowed by her former lover and labelled his muse, German painter Gabriele Münter once complained….“In the eyes of many, I was only an unnecessary side-dish to (her lover) Kandinsky. It is all too easily forgotten that a woman can be a creative artist with a real, original talent of her own”. She reacted by creating her own small revenge. Her painting ‘Boating’ (1910) reflects the male artist standing authoritatively at the prow, while she presents herself clearly both powering and steering the craft- a metaphor for her input and guiding role.
Boating, 1910 by Gabriele Münter
How women have achieved despite labels, restrictions and a lack of parity should of course be recognised. Posthumously Kahlo did become a much more celebrated artist than her husband, creating a legacy which has had global impact. The Mexican painter commonly utilised herself as muse, creating paintings which reflected not only her personal life and emotions, but complex spiritual and political beliefs as well. Artists such as painter Sylvia Sleigh, have subverted artistic conventions by utilising a male muse. Gerda Wegener, likewise, challenged traditional power relations by featuring her trans partner and muse, Lili Elbe. In turn, painter Joanna Boyce and her model Jamaican-born model Fanny Eaton together created much needed representation of women of colour in 19th century Western art. Others, such as contemporary Moroccan artist Lalla A. Essaydi, have challenged the idea of women from whole cultures reduced to Orientalist ‘muses’, by subverting the ideas of artist colonialists.
The term muse, despite having romantic associations, has often been used to conceal injustices to women, allowing manipulation of their representation and devaluing of their own creativity. In this light, Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington had a point when she stated..
‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist’.