The Muse in Pre-Modern Art

Let us consider the muse in pre-modern art. In previous blogs we have addressed; the succubi and incubus in art, the siren and piren, the mermaid and mermen and the prostitute in art. This blog continues that approach. The use of the muse in contemporary art will be considered in the next blog. A few examples of the use of the muse in contemporary art are included in this blog for the purpose of contrasting them with those from pre-modern examples.

A muse is a person who is the source of creative inspiration for artists. A muse might only stimulate the mind of the artist. They may also serve as their models. Therefore, one must be careful of defining the muse. Just because an artist paints or illustrates a person more than once does make for a muse. A muse represents more than a visual attraction. The artists are attracted to some special quality that they alone may notice. In both the female artist and male artist, these traits often spark creativity, imagination, inspiration and often leads to obsession. It is also difficult to distinguish between a lover and a muse. Lovers may serve as models for artists as well as providing special physical and psychological needs, but still might not have the traits necessary to motivate artwork. The human body produces complex electrical activity leading to the creation of magnetic fields in several different types of excitable cells, including neurons, endocrine (including the ovaries and testes) and muscle cells. Neil R. Carlson, Physiology of Behavior. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2013) ISBN 9780205239399 pp. 152-153. There is evidence that alpha rhythm currents produce magnetic fields. How human magnetic fields interact between and within individuals, if at all, is still under investigation. A magnetic muse?

In ancient Greece, they did not have this problem as they made them goddesses and gods. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, the Muses are considered the source of the knowledge embodied in the poetry, lyric songs, and myths that were related orally for centuries in these cultures.

In this mythology, the Muses are inspirational goddesses, often portrayed as the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences. The Muses are generally listed as Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flute playing and lyric poetry), Terpsichore (choral dancing and song), Erato (lyre playing and lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy and light verse), Polyhymnia (hymns, and later mime), and Urania (astronomy). Euripides seemed to be describing the role of muses when contemplating sirens.

The Muses as portrayed in mythology are or have been a subject for many pre-modern (pre-1863) artists. In the samples below, the artist is painting or illustrating an interpretation or replication of muses from this mythology. They are not using their own muse as a template for their artwork. Pre-modern artworks, which utilize muses from Greek mythology, are shown in Figure B-1 and Figure B-2.

Figure B-1 is a painting by Mantegna (1497) showing nine muses dancing, in an allegory of universal harmony. Muses are generally looked upon as positive influences. However, according to ancient mythology, some chants by the muse could generate earthquakes and other catastrophes.

B-1. La_Parnasse,_by_Andrea_Mantegna,_from_C2RMF_retouched

Figure B-1. The Parnassus: Mars and Venus, Andrea Mantegna, 1497. Andrea Mantegna, The Parnassus: Mars and Venus, 1497, Public domain, Louvre, Paris.

Figure B-2 is an engraving by Adam Bartsch (1802) also showing a rendition of the nine muses from Greek mythology.

B-2. large

Figure B-2. Apollo Dancing with the Nine Muses, 1802, Adam Bartsch, Engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. , last visited 3 Jun 2019.

A few modern artists still used in their artworks, images from and references to ancient mythologies. Figure B-3, “Apollo and the Muses” (1916-1921), by John Singer Sargent is but one example. In more modern times artists have used their own muses in their artworks. Frida Kahlo used her female muse, Chavela Vargas in her artwork. The reverse might also be true as both were artists. This presents an interesting possibility of co-muses.

Figure B-3. Apollo_and_the_Muses_1916-1921, by_John_Singer_Sargent. No attempt will be made to critique this piece, save to say that the title suggests a fondness for women which goes against the history which had him as more interested in the male form. A Muse is a Muse is a Muse., revisited 3 Jun 2019.

B-3. Apollo_and_the_Muses_by_John_Singer_Sargent

Figure B-3. Apollo_and_the_Muses_1916-1921, by_John_Singer_Sargent oil on canvas, Public Domain.

A good example in which a muse of the artist may have been used in a modern artwork is shown in figure B-4, a painting by Marie Laurencin “Group of Artists”, where she depicts (from left) Pablo Picasso, herself (Laurencin), the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (center), and Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s model. In 1907, Marie Laurencin began an amorous and cerebral affair with poet Apollinaire. Picasso was not Marie Laurencin’s male muse but Apollinaire probably was. To my knowledge, Marie Laurencin never spelled it out, so we are never sure.

B-4. 5bb28a08200000e800fff2d8

Figure B-4. Marie Laurencin, “Group of Artists” 1908 Oil on canvas, (Musee Marmettan Paris / Huffington Post),

Figure B-5 is a portrait of Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote) as Hercules. The women in the picture were interpreted, as female muses. It appears as if Cervantes as Hercules represents a male muse or a possibly a piren to the young ladies surrounding him or for Cervantes himself. “Picturing Don Quixote,” Public Domain Review, accessed 20 March 2018, 

B-5. 26269888345_3e6896c839_b

Figure B-5. Allegorical Portrait of Cervantes as a Muscular Hercules, from the 1738 London Tonson edition, designed by John Vanderbank and engraved by Gerard van der Gucht. John Vanderbank, engraved by Gerard van der Gucht, “Picturing Don Quixote,” Public Domain Review, accessed 20 March 2018. visited 3 Jun 2019.

In figure B-6, Don Juan appears both as a male muse and a lover of women. Byron (1819) portrays Don Juan not as a womanizer but as someone easily seduced by women. Others view him as a wealthy man who behaves without moral principles and who devoted his life to seducing women of all ages. “Don Juan,” Wikipedia, accessed 20 March 2018, Juan_ Of the many women he seduced or was seduced by, a few were probably artists. Might Don Juan have been a closet male muse or an unsuspecting male muse?

B-6. FlyJuanFly-Canto1-Cruickshank-1 copy

Figure B-6. Don Juan, Isaac Cruickshank. taken the illustration at the head of this post from an 1826-pirated edition (Smeeton) of Canto I that featured plates by Isaac Cruickshank. 3 Jun 2019. And, visited 3 Jun 2019

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