Why are muses important in art history?

‘We might traditionally think of “a muse” as a woman,’ says writer Sophie Haydock, ‘but a muse can be anything that inspires a greater state of connection and creativity – a place, a feeling or something fleeting.’ The muse in all her glory is a creature Sophie has lived with intimately for some years. Her debut novel, The Flames, was published in 2022 and chronicles the stories of four real-life muses who inspired Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele in the early 20th century.

Photograph: PICRYL.COM
Words: Beverley D’Silva

Far from being the languid, dreamy figure of myth, Sophie concludes that muses are deeply creative, active and influential. ‘A muse is the spark that lights the match of creativity,’ she says. ‘They are not passive in my opinion, they’re someone who not only inspires greatness but actively contributes towards it. It’s a very symbiotic process between model and artist.’

Where does the concept of the Muse come from?

Born from ancient Greek mythology, the Muses were inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts. There were nine Olympian Muses, with enchanting names such as Clio, Thalia and Terpsichore, and they were considered the source of knowledge, as embodied in poetry, lyrical songs and myths passed down orally from the period.

Writers and artists in ancient Greece called on the Muses when embarking on a creative work. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the author Homer asks the muses to help him tell the story in the best way. In paintings, they were depicted as divine creatures of ethereal beauty. During the Enlightenment in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, the word ‘museum’ – which comes from ‘cult place of the Muses’ – came to mean a public display of knowledge. Today, a muse is commonly seen as being a wellspring of artistic inspiration. And while a muse can be of any gender, they’ve traditionally been considered female.

Why the creative role of the muse has been overlooked

Some muses have been prodigious talents in their own right. Nonetheless, they have been overshadowed by the more famous figures with whom they were associated. As greater awareness of sexism – and discrimination of all kinds in the writing of history – helps to reframe and redress injustices, the world is finally giving credit to talents who’ve been woefully unrecognised.

Who are some of the finest muses in fine art?

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had 10 years of emotionally turbulent wedded life from 1929. He was the more famous during their lifetime but, after her death in 1954, Frida’s status surpassed his. Today, she’s celebrated for her striking self-portraits as well as representing Mexican national and indigenous cultures. The pair were mutual muses; her style personal and expressive, his public and monumental.

Their status switch can be seen in sales of their art. His 1931 painting, The Rivals, sold for $9.7million, a record in 2018 for a Latin American artwork. But the figure was surpassed by the sale of Frida’s Diego and I (1949), which depicts her tearful self with his head stamped on her forehead. It sold in November 2021 for $34.9million, trumping his price by over three-and-a-half times.

Dora Maar (1907-1997)

Dora Maar was an accomplished surrealist photographer, painter and poet who documented Depression-era America in the late 1920s. She met Picasso in 1935 and became his lover and muse for about 10 years. She was also the only person allowed to document him as he painted his epic work Guernica. She inspired some of his most famous paintings, such as Portrait of Dora Maar and Weeping Woman, both created in 1937. When he left her for Françoise Gilot in 1943, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Afterwards, she devoted more time to painting and turned to Catholicism, explaining: ‘After Picasso, only God.’

Emilie Louise Flöge (1874-1952)

When, in 1918, the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was dying, his final words, allegedly, were: ‘Call for Emilie!’ His muse – and companion for decades – was also a prominent member of the Vienna Secession and an avant-garde fashion designer with a loyal following. She contributed to the feminist dress reform movement, which aimed to liberate women from the corset, and is featured in many of Klimt’s paintings wearing her own designs. Experts believe his most famous work, The Kiss (1905-9) depicts the artist and Emilie as lovers.