Greek mythology, muses were goddesses, protectors of Arts and Sciences, who provided the artists with the inspiration.
“Tell me, Oh Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.” Homer, The Odyssey
According to legend, they would come down to Earth to choose the right men in whose minds sow thoughts and ideas, that they would then take as their own.
Back in the VII century B.C., in Greece, classical poet Homer appealed to the muses in search of inspiration, to compose what are the two most important literary works of the Ancient Greece: The Odyssey and The Iliad.
Later on in history, XIII-XIV centuries, the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, also invokes the muses to write The Divine Comedy, considered the masterpiece of the Italian literature and also one of the masterworks of the Universal literature.
But the figure of the muse discussed here, transcends what is purely ethereal and materialises into the woman who, with her innate magic, penetrates the artist’s mind and sows the seed of inspiration.
“Oh Muses, Oh high genius, now be my aid! O memory, that you did write down what I saw, Here your nobility will be displayed!” Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Painters, poets, writers, photographers, couturiers…, they’ve all been touched by the grace of a muse.
Embodied by the wife, a lover, a friend; or by some random woman placed in the right place in the right moment. Either or, she is the reason for the artist to be. She sparks the flame of inspiration and lets loose of the creativity.
As a result of such an intense connexion, the line that defines the relationship between these two creative elements is fine and easily overstepped. Always fruitful, this union has its lights and its shades, and the idyll often gives way to tragedy - as the reader will discover further on in the article.
From the XIII century, to the Manhattan of the 50’s, through the Paris of La Bohème. This article is dedicated to these great women who, with their undeniable charisma and audacity, changed the history.
Beatrice Portinari (1266-1290)
The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova are Dante Alighieri’s two most famous works. Full of passion, these two masterpieces wouldn’t exist without the muse that inspired them. This is, Beatrice Portinari.
Where some historians doubt about her existence, others endeavour to follow the trail of a specific biography.
This biography corresponds to a Florentine lady called Beatrice de Portinari, who would had lived at the end of the XIII century. Also known as “Bice”, she would be the daughter of Folco de Portico di Romagna, a rich banker, founder of the hospital Santa Maria Nuova, in Florence.
Dante and Bice lived separated lives. They met for the first time when she was around nine years old and, later on, when she was already married to the banker Simone dei Bardi, back in the 1287. The true Beatrice died very young, at the age of 24, consequence of the black plague.
Dante, who would have secretly loved her, was devastated by the young lady’s death, and made her immortal trough the character of Beatrice - from the Latin Beatrix, that means blessed - in his most famous literary works.
It is said that beatrice would be buried in the church Santa Margarita de Cerchi, close to where Dante and her used to live.
On the other hand, those who refuse to believe in the existence of Beatrice as such, state that the protagonist of The Divine Comedy is just a metaphor, a symbol of sublime love that Dante embodied under her name.
Real or not, Beatrice de Portinari remains as one of the most important muses of the Italian and the Universal literature.
Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)
Elizabeth Siddal was born in 1829, in London. Daughter of Charles Crooke Siddall and Elizabeth Eleanor Evans, Lizzie - her loving nickname - discovered her passion for poetry at a very early age, after reading an Alfred Tennyson’s poem on a newspapers.
In 1949, while working as a milliner in Cranbourne Alley, in Leicester Square, the young Elizabeth was discovered by a painter called Walter H. Deverell, who hired her to work as a model. She would pose as Viola, for the painter’s work known as Twelfth Night - one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, based on a Shakespeare’s play.
For awhile, Siddal combined her work at Mrs Tozer’s millinery with modelling. That provided her with economic independence; something pretty unusual for a woman of her time.
That’s how Lizzie came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters, poets and critics, that rejected the academic art prevailing in the XIX century, in England, for considering it to be carrying on with the mannerism of the Italian painting after Raphael and Michelangelo: elegant works but vacuous and lacking sincerity. For that reason, they advocated a return to the bright, colouristic, detail-oriented style of the primitive Italians and Flemish, previous to Raphael - hence their name -, those who they considered more genuine.
A most beautiful creature with an air between dignity and sweetness with something that exceeded modest self-respect and partook of disdainful reserve; tall, finely-formed with a lofty neck and regular yet somewhat uncommon features, greenish-blue unsparkling eyes, large perfect eyelids, brilliant complexion and a lavish heavy wealth of coppery golden hair. William Michael Rossetti
At that time, Lizzie was in her twenties. Her slim figure, copper-coloured hair, and features that approached her beauty to the Gothic aesthetic that Pre-Raphaelite artists sought, turned her into their most loved muse.
Lizzie went on to model for other Pre-Raphaelite artists, and is most commonly recognised as Ophelia in the painting by John Everett Millais.
For this work she had to model submerged in water for hours, in order to recreate Ophelia’s drowning in the most realistic possible way. As a result of that, she fell very ill and never healed completely.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Among all the painters Elizabeth Siddal met through her model years, it was the charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti who, not just drew and painted her obsessively, but also encouraged her in her own artwork and poetry.
It was the year 1849 when they met. Lizzie was modelling for Walter H. Deverell, when the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti appeared, and instantly felt that ‘his destiny was defined’. By 1851 she was sitting for him. She became her only muse and, at the same time, he stopped her for modelling for other artists.
Their relationship was intense and rocky, with an informal engagement that lasted on and off for a decade. They got married in 1860 but, sadly, their marriage was short.
Elizabeth was never a healthy woman. Addicted to laudanum, her weak health condition added to her husband’s constant infidelities, sank her in an awful depression, that hit rock bottom in 1861 after suffering a stillborn daughter.
She never recovered from her loss and, in 1862, at the age of 32, she killed herself by taking a laudanum overdose meanwhile her husband was enjoying one of his multiple mistresses.
Rossetti, maybe repentant and as a love gesture, buried her along with the handwritten poems he once composed for her. Seven years later, he had her coffin exhumed in order to retrieve the poems for publication.
The story was spread that Lizzie was still in beautiful, pristine condition and that her flaming hair had continued to grow after death, filling the coffin.
Misia Sert (1872-1950)
Olga Maria Zofia Zenajda Godebska was born March 30, 1872 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, within an artistic environment. Her father. Cipriano Godebski, was a renowned Polish sculptor and professor at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and her mother, Zofia Servais, was the daughter of a noted Belgian cellist.
The little Misia never met her mother, who died after giving birth to her.
She went to live with her maternal grandparents, in Brussels. Her grandfather, Adrien-François Servais, immersed her in refined musical circles, getting to spend time with friends of the family such as Franz List. It was in this environment, with her grandfather as a mentor, that Misia received her musical education and became soon a gifted pianist.
Her father, who went through different marriages after her first wife’s death, decided to take Misia to live in Paris with him and his last espouse. It didn’t take long for her father to place her in a convent boarding school, the Sacre-Coeur, where she remained for six years. The only pleasure she had during that time was having piano lessons once a week, with the eminent Gabriel Fauré.
At the age of 15, Misia escaped the school and his father, and started her own life working as a piano teacher and giving concerts.
She was 21 when Misia got married for the first time. He was Thadée Natanson, her distant cousin. Regular of the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris, he was involved in political causes, supporting and sharing the socialist ideology with his friend Leon Blum.
The couple’s home would soon become a gathering place for the artistic elite. They held lavish parties with guests such as Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Claude Debussy and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - who enjoyed playing bartender, and became known for serving a potent cocktail - the Pousse-Café. They were all mesmerised by their charming hostess.
In 1889, Natanson founded La Revue Blanche, an art and literary magazine, with some of the greatest writers and artists of the time as contributors, devoted to discovering new artistic talents. Misia became the muse of the magazine, appearing in advertising posters created by Toulouse-Lautrec, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. But they weren’t the only artists inspired by this young lady’s charm.
She also inspired the impressionist brush of the great Renoir, who painted her in many occasions. Marcel Proust found in her the inspiration for some of the characters of his famous work, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). Maurice Ravel succumbed as well to Misia’s charm and, because of her, two of his pieces were born: Le Cygne and La Valse.
Misia’s life was full of goodness and constant enjoyment. Coexisting with the Nabis (artists who had La Revue Blanche as reference), was for her source of joy and happiness, and that’s how it’s reflected on her memoirs. As in an Impressionist painting, she describes this period in her life between rustic meetings, peaceful warm siestas and intimate sunsets with her friends. An idyllic bright world in which she feels admired and that she enjoys with studied concealing, aware of being in the grounds for a cultural movement for what she plays a main role.