Did you know that Botticelli’s ethereal faces were said to be of one woman, the beautiful Simonetta Vespucci? We explore the women who inspired art history’s greatest masterpieces.
“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
– William Shakespeare, Henry V.
Botticelli’s La Bella Simonetta
The ultimate muse, this young beauty charmed Florentine society. Although she died tragically young at age 22, her allure has been eternalized in the works of Sandro Botticelli, who preferred her face above all others. So goddess-like was she considered, the artist is even said to have modeled his Venus on her. In a final act of romance Botticelli also requested he be buried at her feet, forever to worship her.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti‘s beloved, Elizabeth Siddal, also modeled for other artists: famously and fittingly as John Everett Millais‘ tragic floating Ophelia. Sadly, like Orphelia, under her beauty hid an inner turmoil: she was an unstable character and, driven to an addiction to Laudanum, took a fatal overdose in 1862.
The statuesque beauty, Dorothy Dene, was Victorian painter Frederic Lord Leighton‘s favorite muse. Her career as an actress was a perfect complement to Leighton’s classical imaginings. She appears several times in his works languidly draped in flowing fabrics. The relationship was advantageous to both, as Leighton introduced her to many society contacts, no doubt furthering her career on the London stage.
Jane Morris, wife of Arts and Crafts activist William Morris, embodied the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty with her intelligence, grace and timeless beauty. She also became model and muse to Dante Rossetti, inspiring him to paint some of his greatest works.
Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar
The notoriously unfaithful artist has become known for his excess of masculinity…leading to infidelities of the heart, in the bedroom and on canvas: Picasso had a string of muses throughout his career, each synonymous with his successive love affairs.
Between 1926-1944, he was in a relationship with photographer Dora Maar and painted her over a dozen times. Perhaps a result of his cheating ways, one of the most famous portraits of Dora is of the anguished, distorted ‘Weeping Woman’.
Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
Camille Claudel had a tempestuous relationship with sculptor August Rodin. An artist in her own right, Claudel worked in bronze and stone, sharing a studio for a time with Rodin, where they would both work manically. Each sculpted the other, but disagreements eventually drove them apart. Claudel’s mental state deteriorated, her artistic output dried up and she lived out the rest of her years in an insane asylum.
Impressions of Madame Ginoux
In contrast to Claudel and Rodin, Vincent Van Gogh chose an outwardly stable, sturdy country woman for his muse. Madame Ginoux, the landlady of the Café in Arles that Gogh and Paul Gauguin frequented during their stay, was captured in paint and titled ‘L’Arlesienne’. Evoking a timeless and ancient Provencal beautiful woman of the earth, Ginoux in real life suffered from mental breakdown and depression. While the series was poorly received during Van Gogh’s lifetime, a ‘L’Arlesienne’ portrait has since sold at auction in 2006 for a staggering $40million.
Deep reciprocal bonds were often shared between artistic friends and lovers, and women artists were similarly inspired by the men in their lives. A deep and lasting relationship existed between Bloomsbury intellectuals Dora Carrington and Lytton Strachey. Although Strachey was homosexual, Carrington continually adored him, and they lived in close quarters together for 17 years – even when Dora married, they honeymooned à trois! When Strachey died in 1932, Carrington could not go on without him and shot herself 6 weeks later.
Kitty Garman and Lucian Freud
Born of artistic heritage, Kitty Garman was the daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein and the first wife of painter Lucian Freud. An inspiration for an early series of portraits, Kitty set Freud on his depiction of the female muse. The stark atmosphere and fragility of his young wife is unsettling, but nowhere near the rawness and brutal brushstrokes of Freud’s later, explicit views of women, including modern super-muse Kate Moss.
The surreal life of Gala Dali
The wife of not one but two surrealists, Gala’s personality and presence made her an enduring feature in the life of both Paul Eluard, her first husband, and Salvador Dali, her second. If Dali’s dreamlike vistas are a vision of the inner psyche… then it shows there was only one woman on his mind. Gala features in many of his works, often as a nude figure or just a floating head in among his surreal desert landscapes.
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