What is a Muse? Definition and Meaning

Though talent is something that belongs solely to each individual artist, inspiration can come from many different places. Behind most famous artists is a muse who inspires new passion and better work. A muse is more often than not the artist’s lover, who becomes a source of artistic inspiration and the subject of their creative process and works of art. Without the following muses, the world would have missed out on some of the most influential and beloved pieces of art ever made – and on some of the most colourful love stories…

10 Famous Muses of Iconic Artists

Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, an artist herself, inspired many famous artists from the Pre-Raphaelites era, among whom were John Everett Millais, Walter Deverell, and William Holman Hunt. Lizzie posed for Millais’ famous Ophelia, for which she floated in a bathtub full of water during their sessions. But perhaps the artist most inspired by Lizzie was her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She met Rossetti in 1849, started modeling for him, and soon enough he was mostly painting her, and stopped her from modeling for other Pre-Raphaelites. A year after her death, in 1863, Rossetti painted Lizzie as a praying Beatrice in Beata Beatrix.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix. Muse definition
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (1863)

Victorine Meurent

The story goes that famous artist Édouard Manet saw Victorine making her way through the bustling streets, and became inspired to start painting in a completely new fashion, breaking away from previous traditional styles. Victorine modeled for two of Manet’s most controversial and influential paintings: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia. In both paintings, she is depicted completely nude, in a very nonchalant manner, which was quite scandalous for that time. Victorine also modeled for famous artists Edgar Degas and Alfred Stevens, and was an artist herself. It appears that Victorine did not have a love affair with Manet, but with Stevens.

Édouard Manet, Olympia. Muse definition
Édouard Manet, Olympia (1865)

Camille Claudel

Yet another artist’s muse who was also a famous artist herself, Camille Claudel was an extremely talented sculptor. She was also Auguste Rodin’s assistant, lover, and muse, and he in turn inspired many of her sculptures. Their love affair was tumultuous, with Claudel being extremely independent but also deeply hurt that Rodin would not leave his long-term partner, Rose Beuret, for her. She spent the last 30 years in a mental institution, and tragically destroyed most of her phenomenal work. According to experts, Claudel was an important influence on Rodin’s artistic growth and experimentation, and the change in his work after he met her is undeniable.

Camille Claudel in 1884. Muse definition
Camille Claudel in 1884 (aged 19)

Emilie Louise Flöge

One of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge were life-long partners until Klimt’s death. She was a fashion designer who was widely misunderstood because she was far ahead of her time; Klimt, however, understood her work like no other. Flöge often appears in his art, as do her groundbreaking designs (these are the iconic dresses we know so well from Klimt’s paintings). It is speculated that Flöge and Klimt are the ones portrayed in his most famous work of art, The Kiss. Though it is unclear whether they were also lovers, or simply best friends and companions, their deep connection speaks for itself and contributed to the work of the famous artist.

Gustav Klimt, Detail of Portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge. Muse definition
Gustav Klimt, Detail of Portrait of Emilie Louise Flöge (1902)

Kiki de Montparnasse

Kiki de Montparnasse was a cabaret singer, memoirist, and painter, but is best known for being the model and muse to many famous artists of Surrealism from the 1920’s. Man Ray in particular was immensely inspired by her, and they were lovers and companions for most of the ‘20s, during which period he created countless works inspired by and featuring Kiki. His most famous works of her are Le Violin d’Ingres and Noire et Blanche.

Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. Muse definition
Man Ray, Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924

Dora Maar

Dora Maar was the muse and lover of Picasso, one of the world’s most famous artists, during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Maar was a photographer, and inspired many of Picasso’s famous cubist paintings, among which are Portrait of Dora Maar, Weeping Woman, and Woman Dressing Her Hair. She was also the only person who was allowed to capture the various stages of Guernica while Picasso was working on it. When their relationship became strained, and Picasso met a younger woman, Maar suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. Following her relationship with the famous artist, Maar turned to Roman Catholicism, saying: “After Picasso, only God.”

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937. Courtesy of Tate

Gala Diakonova

Gala Diakonova enraptured many of the great surrealists of the 20th century. She was initially the wife of surrealist poet Paul Éluard, then the lover of Max Ernst, until she captured the heart of Salvador Dalí, who was ten years younger than her. Gala and Dalí married, and not only did she inspire countless of his works, but she also acted as his manager. Dalí often painted Gala as an erotic goddess, and continued to do so as she got older.

Salvador Dalí, Leda Atomica (1949)

Edie Sedgwick

“Poor little rich girl” Edie Sedgwick was a socialite who moved to New York to pursue modeling. She was soon introduced to Pop Art artist Andy Warhol and his Factory, and Warhol became enchanted with her iconic style and her vibrant personality. Warhol had her star in several of his screen tests and films, including Beauty No.2, Ciao! Manhattan, and Poor Little Rich Girl. Their close codependent relationship ended badly, with Warhol pushing her out of her circles, and Sedgwick getting more and more lost in drug abuse, finally overdosing at the age of 28.

Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick c. 1965 – Photo: Steve Schapiro

George Dyer

George Dyer and Francis Bacon met in 1963, and began a tumultuous, deeply intense, and inspiring romance. Bacon painted many portraits of his muse and lover, and many claim these works are his most inspired ones. Two days before the opening of Bacon’s 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Dyer committed suicide.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (1963)

Patti Smith

Singer-songwriter Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, himself a famous artist, met in New York in the 1960’s. They became roommates, lovers, superstars, and each other’s muses. Smith features in several of Mapplethorpe’s famous photographs, and recently wrote a memoir documenting her fascinating relationship with Mapplethorpe.

Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe. Courtesy of Tate Museum

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