Art Term Tuesday: Muse

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

One of the most popular questions when I lead an exhibition tour is, “What inspired the artist to make this?”. Sometimes we know the answer, through the title, description accompanying the artwork, or from literature about the artist and their works (like a catalogue raisonné); other times we don’t. It’s a question that is asked time and again, throughout history: What inspired this work of art? Or, more specifically, who or what was the artist’s muse? There are two definitions for muse: the first and oldest definition relates to each of the nine Greek Muses, while the contemporary definition is a person or personified force that acts as the source of inspiration. It is also important to note that a muse is different from an artist’s model. While a muse can model for an artist, models come and go; artists use models to capture specific attributes or directly reference them for portraits, but these individuals may only be used for a few works of art. Models are typically paid. A muse, however, will stick around in an artist’s oeuvre, as they are a source of rich artistic and creative inspiration, rather than a source of compositional or anatomical reference.

The first known reference to the term muse can be attributed to the Greek word “mousa”, which loosely translates to music or song. This was used in reference to the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (love poetry/ lyric art), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy). Note that most of the forms of creative expression have to do with theater or literature, which were held in the highest regard by the Greeks (they were the true representations of high art at the time, as opposed to painting or sculpture). Greek playwrights, poets, and musicians would send a prayer or offering to their patron goddess, asking for success and inspiration. We know this from literature like Homer’s Odyssey; throughout the Odyssey Homer invokes one or more Muses, asking them for guidance as he relates his epic.

How, then, did pagan goddesses become associated with artists from Christianized Europe? It’s a great question, as the visual arts clearly weren’t their domain. Over time, as Christianity took hold in Europe, many pagan traditions were shifted and molded to meet the new cultural guidelines. This is what happened to the term muse; it came to be understood as an inspiration or influence behind an artwork, be it literature, painting, or sculpture. Typically referring to a woman, she is an idealized, goddess-like figure captured by the artist and preserved as luscious and young in perpetuity. As a result, an artist’s muse is often held in high regard – after all, she inspired countless masterpieces, from the Renaissance to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Édouard Manet, French, 1832-1883. Berthe Morisot. Etching on paper, 1872. Purchase, 1958.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

There is a darker side to being an artist’s muse. We can see this in two of Édouard Manet’s most famous muses: Victorine Meurent and Berthe Morisot. Meurent is often described as Manet’s favorite model and first muse, as she shows up in famous paintings such as Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. She is remembered as a flame-haired vixen, immortalized on Manet’s canvas. This fame overshadowed the full extent of Meurent’s story, however, as she herself was a talented artist. Berthe Morisot has more of a reputation as an artist in her own right, but in any book or article you read about her, a significant chunk is devoted to her status as Manet’s muse. She is the dark, sultry figure gazing out of masterpieces such as The Balcony and FWMoA’s own 1872 etching Berthe Morisot. Her piercing eyes captivate viewers, yet the conversation always returns to her relationship with Manet and his tutelage. Morisot created some of the most captivating scenes of women and children, long after she ceased being Manet’s artistic inspiration and pupil; despite this, her time as a muse often overshadows her career as an artist.

Today we see artists, like Chuck Sperry, combining both the Greek interpretation of a Muse and a traditional artistic female muse. Sperry often draws inspiration from Greek mythology, and one of his regular sources of inspiration is Semele, Princess of Thebes and mother of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine (Bacchus for you Romans). Sperry’s Semele, however, is transformed from Greek goddess into Rock ‘n Roll siren, as seen in his Widespread Panic poster from 2013. The only reference to her Greek roots is her name as the rest of her is retooled into an idealized personification of a luscious beauty; she is here to enthrall the concertgoers, enticing them to attend. It is also interesting to note that Sperry’s Thalia is an imagined woman – she doesn’t come from a real-life model or muse, but is the personification of the spirit of music.

Chuck Sperry, American, b.1962. Widesperad Panic MSG, NYC (Regular Edition). Screenprint on paper, 2013. Gift of the Artist, CS.191. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Additionally, the recent Me Too movement has questioned how we know that the muse (when she is a living human) in question agreed to have her image used by the artist. The simple answer is that we often don’t have a way of knowing whether or not a muse agreed to have her image represented in any manner. There are arguments that paintings or works of art depicting women or young girls in a risqué manner should be removed from museums because they were taken advantage of in the name of art. Many museums, in lieu of removing these works, have instead initiated conversations about the male gaze, the act of consent, and what it meant to be a muse hundreds of years ago compared to now.

This is the problem with focusing on an artist’s muse as simply the object of (usually) his affection and inspiration – it negates women as artists and individuals, placing them as the object in art. This is not to say that a woman can’t be both. We know that women who are talented and successful can also serve as inspiration; today, we see it often in fashion as celebrities perform the role of muse for designers. The negative aspect of the muse is twofold: women are represented in a voyeuristic manner, purely for the artist and viewer’s pleasure, and are being upheld as the epitome of beauty and inspiration. While the Muses were first viewed as powerful forces who bestowed inspiration and talent on writers and musicians, in the modern visual arts the muse is passive, an object to be viewed. What can artists do today to help muses regain their agency and ensure consent?

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