Galarina Dali, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar, VictorineMeurent, Camille Claudel, Joanna Hiffernan, Alma Mahler… very influential and inspiring women, but do you know of them? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Certainly, though, you know well the names of the men with whom these women are paired (so well that I need not write their surnames): respectively Dali, Picasso, Manet, Rodin, Whistler, Klimt.
The tradition of the female muse in art is ancient. According to Greek mythology, the muses were Zeus’s daughters, goddesses dedicated to the arts and knowledge. In Roman mythology, they were named as Calliope for epic poetry, Clio for history, Euterpe for flutes and lyric poetry, Thalia for comedy and pastoral poetry, Melpomene for tragedy, Terpsichore for dance, Erato for love poetry, Polyhymnia for sacred poetry and Urania for astronomy. For many centuries since, artists have turned to muses for inspiration, but increasingly those female muses have taken physical form.
Galarina Dali, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Victorine Meurent, Camille Claudel, Joanna Hiffernan, Alma Mahler… these muses are known. But often an artwork is more powerful when the muse is a woman in the shadows.
The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci is a famous example of a painting whose subject was not declared by the artist, and for 500 years art historians have endeavoured to name the muse (current thinking is that she was Lisa Gherardini). Here is another iconic artwork:
The Girl with the Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous work, and yet to this day Vermeer’s muse is unknown. The resulting intrigue inspired Tracy Chevalier to write a novel fictionalising the story behind the painting, which subsequently was made into a movie and a play.
I have always been fascinated by muses, and especially the ones in the shadows. In my latest novel, Masquerade, the heroine Luz has been commissioned to write a biography of a famous Spanish artist named Eduardode Salazar, and she has uncovered references to his having a muse, La Pouliche. Andrés, her employer (and the man with whom she is falling in love!) shows her a special room in Eduardo’s house where she lays eyes on La Poulichefor the first time.
‘He uncovered this shrine to his muse only a few months before his death. No one knew anything about its existence before that.’
‘She looks a great beauty and a sensual one at that. She also seems very young.’ Luz observed, looking up at him. ‘Who was she? Why did Eduardo not marry her?’
Andrés shrugged. ‘I tell you, he was very ill when these works came to light.’ His jaw was set in a grim line, eyes hooded, his expression revealing nothing.
Luz searched his face, trying to read his features. Suddenly she sensed that he resented her questions. But how was she supposed to write about his uncle if she couldn’t get to grips with her subject? La Pouliche – it was her official name – contrary to all the information she had gathered so far, had clearly been a great part of the artist’s inspiration.
Luz continued to walk around the room, examining each and every one of the numerous small standing and reclining figures of La Pouliche, the Filly. Always in a relaxed attitude, the beautiful body of Eduardo’s muse knelt, stood, or reclined, arms draped about her head, each part of her alive and sensually provocative. Luz paused in front of one of the bronze busts of the model whose head was thrown back in an arrogant taunt, her mane of hair cascading untidily behind her. She could almost see the fire seething in the large, animated eyes. Where had she seen that look before?
Andrés can tell her little about Salazar’s muse, and does not expect Luz to delve deeper into the mystery. Indeed, he seems almost reluctant for her to do so. But just like those who are curious about the Mona Lisa and the Girl with the Pearl Earring, Luz is determined to elucidate the mystery of La Pouliche.
It is easy to rationalise Luz’s curiosity as a need to know the full picture so that she can write an informed biography (even if the identity of Salazar’s muse is not published). But I believe her need for the truth – all quests, in fact, to uncover the true identities of artists’ muses – is also rooted in a desire to bring a woman out of the shadows; to honour her contribution, as muse, to the art.
In the case of La Pouliche, however, Luz may come to wish that she had left that particular muse in the dark…