In Greek Mythology, the Muses were the goddesses of science, literature and the arts. The source of knowledge for all creative endeavors, no man could create their master work or piece de resistance without their divine intervention. Art history is full of these celestial beings, come down to earth in human form. Like their namesakes, these woman inspired their admirers to achieve greatness, often at the expense of themselves. From humble beginnings to tragic ends, here is our list of art history’s greatest muses.
Dubbed ‘the Pre-Raphaelite supermodel,’ Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Siddal was plucked from obscurity in 1849 to pose for some of the best-known painters in the Victorian art world, and her tragic life story mirrors several contemporary counterparts. Spotted working in a hat shop at age 20 by Walter Deverall, her visage can be seen not only in his paintings, but also in the work of William Holman Hunt, and perhaps most famously, John Everett Millais’ Drowning Ophelia, 1851.
Still, Siddal’s most devoted admirer was her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and she was his first-ever muse. The number of paintings he created of her are said to be in the thousands. Despite his obvious affection for Siddal, their relationship was tumultuous. Rosetti broke off their engagement at the last minute several times and was known to have numerous affairs, which contributed to Siddal’s battle with depression. She suffered with ill-health most of her life and became addicted to opium. An accidental overdose is one of many suggested reasons for her death at the age of 32, as well as suicide. Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix, 1870, one of his most famous works, as a tribute to Siddal after her passing.
First seen in Edouard Manet’s 1862 painting The Street Singer, Victorine Meurent’s presence announced a new kind of art. Instead of sticking to the old, academic style of painting, Manet broke convention and began painting life as it happened in the bustling hub of Paris, and this included Meurent.
After bumping into her on the street, the small, redheaded girl known as ‘the shrimp’ became Manet’s go-to model and muse. She is featured in two of his most famous paintings, Olympia (1863) and Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe (1863-68). In both of these images, the lower class, unrefined Meurent is seen nude and in ‘compromising’ positions, and the art world was shocked by her willingness to parade around in such a manner, causing a scandal.
It wasn’t just her naked form that shook up society. It was her clear, calm gaze that seemed to say, ‘Yes, this is how modern men and women behave when left to their own devices.’ Although she was as far from a conventional beauty as could be, Manet bestowed upon her the attention a more conventional painter would give to a society girl, treating her and others like her with dignity and respect.
What is perhaps most interesting about Meurent is that despite inspiring some of the most provocative images of the 19th century, little is known of her life. This is mainly because the majority of Manet’s biographers ignored her influence on the painter, banishing her into obscurity. Still, the accounts of her that do exist describe her as a bold and financially independent woman, and one more than worthy of a page in art history.
During Gustav Klimt’s lifetime, it was widely believed that he and Emilie Floge were lovers. However, as with most famed-love affairs, the truth is much more complex. Austrian-born Floge, 12 years Klimt’s junior, was the sister of his brother’s wife. What records remain of their relationship, such as letters and reports of family trips to the summer home on the Attersee, are loving yet platonic, and Klimt became a surrogate uncle to young Emilie.
Her innocent persona vastly contrasted with Klimt’s actual mistresses, who were models or housekeepers. If he was in love with Emilie it was a Madonna-esque love, which may explain why in Klimt’s Portrait of Emilie Floge, 1902, is the first to present the model as a bejeweled icon, Klimt’s version of the goddesses in classical paintings. She was a talented seamstress, opening her own boutique with her sisters that specialized in haute couture. Klimt is said to have designed some of the bolder dress patterns for the boutique. Emilie is rumored to be the girl in his most famous painting The Kiss, 1907.
However, like many great muse-artist relationships, theirs’ had its up and downs. When Klimt proposed to another woman, Emilie attempted suicide, swallowing a dozen sleeping pills. She even visited the famous Dr. Sigmund Freud to request his advice on their situation, who promptly told her Klimt suffered from sexual neurosis and that she should end their association (of course she didn’t).
Although he obviously cared for Emilie, Klimt refused to marry her, even when the Floge family fell into financial turmoil. Despite his notorious philandering, she remained true to him. She was his lifelong companion, right up until his death in 1918. Whether or not their relationship was sexual, she was one of the most important influences in his life, so much so that his last words are said to be ‘send for Emilie.’
The Surrealists considered themselves to be revolutionaries both in life and art, so it’s no surprise that this outlook would also extend to their relationships. Gala Diakonova was the muse to not one, but three Surrealists, and their associations often overlapped. While married to Paul Eluard, Russian-born Gala conducted an affair with Max Ernst, and they lived in a ménage à trois rather harmoniously for three years. During this time, Ernst painted Gala as an erotic goddess, and she would also appear this away in the work of her second husband Salvador Dali.
The pair met in 1929, and their affair resulted in the dissolution of her marriage to Eluard. Dali, who was a decade younger than Gala, was mesmerized by the dominating and wildly ambitious Russian, although many in his circle hated Gala and disapproved of the union. Still, they married in 1934, and Dali immortalized his bride in a range of his most important works, including Nude on the Plain of Rosas, 1942, worth $4 million. She passed in 1982, with a devastated Dali hanging on miserably for another six years after her death.
When Croatian-born photographer and painter Dora Maar was introduced to Pablo Picasso at café Les Deux Magots in Paris, she stretched out a knife on the table, jabbing it between each of her fingers. She cut herself with the blade, and Picasso was so taken with the tall, striking beauty that he took her blood-stained gloves home with him as a souvenir.
The intellectually and emotionally challenging Maar became the rival of Picasso’s passive mistress Marie-Therese Walter, with whom he had just had a baby and was already bored of. At one-point Picasso had both women in his studio, demanding that he choose between them, resulting in Marr and Walter wrestling on the floor.
His muse for nearly a decade, Maar is known for inspiring some of his greatest works, including Guernica, 1937, and The Weeping Woman, 1937. Maar even painted some of the smaller elements of Guernica herself, and became known in the art world in her own right due to her photographs of Picasso constructing the famous cubist masterpiece. Their relationship ended in 1946, but Marr kept some of Picasso’s paintings for herself until her death in 1997 as mementos of their extraordinary affair.
Wealthy, beautiful and well-connected, Edie Sedgwick was the 60s party girl at the center of Andy Warhol’s social circle. She was many things: a drug addict, an actress, an icon of cool, but to artist and avant-garde film maker Warhol she was a living work of art. The pair met at a dinner party in 1965, and she became his most famous superstar, featuring in several of his movies including Horse and Vinyl before he created Poor Little Rich Girl just for her.
Although his films were not commercial successes and were only screened underground or at The Factory, her notoriety grew. Magazines like Vogue and Life lauded the ‘It girl’ for her large eyes, slender frame and unique fashion sense. Her trademark look was black leotards, mini dresses and large chandelier earrings. She also cut her naturally brown hair short and colored it with a silver spray, tailoring her look to match Warhol, as they dominated the social scene as the ultimate ‘non-couple’ couple.
Being young and beautiful in the spotlight doesn’t always equal a happy life, and Sedgwick was committed several times for depression, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as repeated bouts of anorexia. Throughout 1965, she continued to work for Warhol, but by 1966 their relationship deteriorated, and she requested that he no longer show any of her films. The break-down of their friendship was said to have been caused by her new friends, Bob Dylan and Bob Neuwirth, who convinced Sedgwick she would be a bigger star if she left The Factory to pursue a mainstream acting career. Alas, this dream never came true, and Sedgwick died of an overdose of barbiturates at the age of 28. Warhol never got over her supposed betrayal, and publicly ignored the announcement of her passing in 1972.