The Modern Muse
Calder, Chagall, Camoin, Dufy, Léger, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Renoir, van Dongen
November 1, 2013 - February 28, 2014

 Of all the conventions that art throws up  presents once in a while, one is that every creator (read, male) must have a source of inspiration (read, female).  This notion has, in fact, been so honored and treasured for centuries that it is axiomatic.  In Greek times there were nine such Muses, one for each of the arts, sciences as well.  As for the verb, to muse, ponder or reflect, that august authority on historical principles, the Oxford Dictionary, teaches us that it seems to have first entered the English language in the Elizabethan age and was put to good use by such poets as Edmund Spencer and Sir Philip Sidney.


One can see how the whole idea got started and how the sculptor Pygmalion, who appears in the narrative Metamorphoses of Ovid, created a female statue and fell in love with her.  Down through the centuries this myth provided artists with a ready subject, most notably Jean-Léon Géròme.  He shows a nude sculpture being magically transformed by Venus into pink and pretty flesh, throwing her arms around her creator.  She typified the prevailing view of a Muse as having arisen from the artist himself who, in turn, falls in love with his own creation.  She is Adam’s Rib, with no other role than to reflect her maker’s secret aspirations.

As the idea evolved, a new kind of Muse entered the picture, this one personified by the legendary Gretchen of Goethe’s Faust.  The last line in Goethe’s play gives a clue to the apparent paradox: “The Eternal Feminine draws us on.”  A Muse, selfless and pure, acts as the spur to Man’s better nature and redeems him.  The shift is slight, but significant: the Muse has at least become a real person, rather than a figment of the artist’s imagination.
Following close behind this vision of a Muse is the nineteenth-century belief of “The angel in the house”; that pretty, somewhat vacant-eyed woman who appears in the works of such forgotten figures as Frank Stone, Charles Baxter and William Gush.  

An even more dramatic shift of emphasis is clear in Manet’s celebrated nude, “Olympia,” painted in 1863, which is based directly on “Venus of Urbino” by Titian, painted some three hundred years before.  Titian’s lady, sumptuously curved, wearing nothing but a bracelet, reclines on a chaise, shyly turned towards the viewer with the air of a girl willing to believe six impossible things before breakfast, as the saying goes.  Despite her decided corporeality she epitomizes the classical ideal, sensuous, harmonious and somehow flaccid, even depersonalized.

Nothing could be further from this impression of  than ??? the person in Manet’s “Olympia.”  The Venus of Urbino sinks back; she hardly seems to have a bone in her body.  Manet’s Venus sits up and surveys the onlooker with a challenge in her eyes.  She, too, is wearing a bracelet, but there is a small cord around her neck, a flower in her hair and a shoe is on her foot.  Here is a girl in the leisurely process of putting something on, not a girl who has just taken everything off.The challenge in her eyes shows a mood no former Muse would have dared to show, assurance and even insolence. Here is someone with a mind of her own. The Modern Muse has arrived.

One turns with a certain sense of relief to the sunny world of Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani’s senior by half a century who is, to some degree, a classicist and transitional figure.  Here are idealized girls in Arcadian settings – one of Renoir’s favorite models, akin to a Muse, was Gabrielle, actually a hard-working country girl, practical and tireless.  She appears here as a rosy-cheeked teenager young woman  (Meryle - GR was 22 in 1900), seen through the charmed eyes of a sensualist who freely delighted, he once said, in “breasts and buttocks.”  The impression of an artistic gourmand perpetually sitting down to a lavish feast of color, is irresistible.  And so are his women, full-bodied and round-faced, with their comfortable curves and peaceful expressions.  His future wife, Aline, is  was clearly his Muse.  She can be seen as the girl dangling a small dog at the table of his painting, “The Boating Party,” with its exquisite brushwork catching the moment when light floats on water and quivers on a leaf.

Although contemporaries, Renoir and Modigliani met only once, and briefly, when the latter was convalescing in the south of France in the summer of  l9l8.As  usual, Modigliani was painting anyone who would pose for him –washer women, servants, teenagers or passers-by –as long as they were free. The anonymous girl in “Jeune fille assise”, or “Jeune fill en bleu” was painted during the year-long stay in Cannes and Nice. She might, or might not have been a Muse but iI t is generally believed that Modigliani had two major Muses.

The first was Beatrice Hastings, a writer and a poet with whom he had a passionate and stormy affair.  The second, Jeanne Hébuterne, a young artist, lived with him in the final years of his short life, when he was suffering from tuberculosis.  They were certainly painted over and over again by Modigliani, but it is hard to find any dramatic departure in his work during that period, apart from a new authority and grasp.

Modigliani painted to the last hours of his life (in January, 1920) and, “Jeune fille assise, les cheveux dénoue”  is an exquisite example of his final elegiac period, painted during the year-long stay in Cannes and Nice.  Was this anonymous young girl his Muse? Perhaps.  As  usual, Modigliani was painting anyone who would pose for him –washer women, servants, teenagers or passers-by –as long as they were free. His palette has softened, his paint is more delicately applied and the elongated composition is, if possible, more pronounced than ever.  Yet there is a certain  poignance to the tilt of the girl’s head which showed, as Werner Schmalenbach has written, “a reticent, but forcefully expressed inner sympathy” for the subject, one that “achieves great poignancy.”  Her still vibrant creator is at the height of his power.

If the work of both Renoir and Modigliani can be said to reflect life’s fleeting joys they were, nevertheless, living on the edge of a volcanic artistic and social upheaval.  World War I would bring about major transformation in the lives of women, as they entered the workaday world in force, lost their corsets, shortened their skirts and presented, to the delight of department stores, a huge new unexplored consumer market with money to spend.  As for art, by 1900 a revolt against the kind of naturalism that Renoir and the Impressionists had celebrated was already underway.  Surrealism, Objectivism, Cubism, and Abstraction were fast becoming the new realities.  In this atmosphere, one of the most remarkable figures of this or any other age, Pablo Picasso, thrived. Like Modigliani, Picasso not only craved the stimulus of new ideas but knew how to take them and make them his own.

In about 1905, when artists were discovering the revelatory possibilities presented by African masks, Picasso took on the challenge.  Two years later, 1907, he had jettisoned everything he thought before to come up with “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”  This was a brothel scene but unlike any imagined by Toulouse Lautrec, full of sharply jutting forms and strident colors.  Where portraiture was concerned he began to paint faces no one had seen before: an eye here, a cheek there, a wandering eyebrow somewhere else.

Picasso is the quintessential modern example of an artist who not only was inspired by each new relationship but (probably) craved it in order to renew his artistic vision.  And so a lengthy parade of lovers coincides uncannily, in the long life of this famous figure, with new directions taken, from Cubism onwards. We  know that Picasso’s relationship with Fernande Olivier, a Bohemian with a free-wheeling acceptance of life, led Picasso to paintings of the circus, with its peripatetic acrobats and harlequins in rosy pinks and oranges. When the stimulus of her company began to wane he turned to Olga Khokhlova, whom he married, a classically trained Russian ballerina, and that corresponded with a Neo-Classical period in his work.  It is fair to say both were his Muses, at least for a time, a category constantly being refreshed, or rather supplanted, by an intriguing new personality.

Then in 1927 he uncovered what many consider to be his ultimate yet another Muse in Marie-Thérèse Walter, by whom he had a daughter Maya, and who continued to figure in his life for.. Many of Picasso’s best-known canvases are were inspired by this young girl whom he met on the street when he was 50 and she was just l7. According to the legend he saw her and said, “I feel we are going to do great things together,” and did. One of their famous collaborations is”Le Reve,” 1932, which sold for $155 million in 2007, making it one of the world’s most expensive paintings. It is a portrait of Marie-Therese, as is this major pen and ink drawing, of the same year, “Le joueur de clarinette.”

Sylvette was another important Muse.  She was a young neighbor whom he met following World War 2, already engaged, and quite unattainable – her fiancé chaperoned her numerous sittings – perhaps adding to her charms.  Her blond good looks, ponytail, blue-striped sailor’s shirt, and the perky, self-assertive tilt of her head, made an instant impression.  He painted her in profile and gained new renown for having discovered the essence of postwar youth: casual, self-assertive and independent.

Stylistic consideration won the day and so it is not surprising that most 20th-century studies of the female form are focused on reconstructing, rather than following, the beloved’s contours.  For instance, this stunning study by Matisse of a young woman on a divan, wearing a black ribbon, was once owned by another modern Muse, Elizabeth Taylor. Unforgettable as the work is , with its wonderful color and vivid contrasts, one has to wonder whom his model is. She may be a dream in repose, but is she a Muse?    Another model, however, “La Femme au Fauteueil” 1919, has been identified by Hilary Spurling, Matisse’s biographer.  She is Antoinette Arnoud, and she would  play an important role in the artist’s life for two years.  He painted her repeatedly.  She inspired him to try new approaches – and she was not alone.  Spurling describes her as “pale, slender and supple with a quintessentially urban, indoor chic and the kind of responsive intelligence Matisse required… from a model.” [Vol.2, p. 223]

Raoul Dufy: This versatile draftsman, printer, book illustrator and theatrical designer, who followed Fauvist principles in an energetic palette of strong color and emphatic outlines, is well better known for paintings of yachts aflutter on an aquamarine sea than people, but is also known for paintings of his studio interiors. His study of a nude standing in front of a table in his Montmartre studio is a gem. For Dufy, women were less Muses than elements of the larger composition, a harmonious play of color, line and form.  He once described the role of art in life as “to render beauty accessible to all, by putting order into things and thought.”   there is no way to know whether he was inspired by her.  Still, one could argue she must have been someone special, since a nude study was somewhat apart from his usual subject matter.  This versatile draftsman, printer, book illustrator and theatrical designer followed Fauvist principles in an energetic palette of strong color and emphatic outlines.

We have arrived at the rollicking career of yet another magician of the twentieth century, Kees Van Dongen, whose long and successful career included perhaps hundreds of portraits of women all of whom, for the time it took to paint them at least, were his Muses.  This flamboyant Dutchman, born in Rotterdam, settled in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century and was living in squalor in Montmartre at the Bateau Lavoir.  Plenty of young artists endured unspeakable living conditions in that crumbling group of apartments for the chance to meet other artists with good connections – Picasso, for instance.

Van Dongen managed to persuade Fernande Olivier to sit for her portrait and the resulting images was were much admired.  Pretty soon he was emerging as an artist to watch.  Then he painted a full-length portrait of his wife, Augusta Preitinger, wearing nothing but a huge decorative shawl that she had parted to display her shapely form.  “Tableau,” as it was called, was shown at the Salon d’Automne of 1913 and immediately banned  - her husband had made prominent mention of her pubic hair .  Modigliani was to face the same storm when he exhibited his own series of nudes a few years later.

Scandal always helps.  In due course Van Dongen was being courted everywhere.  He gave and attended nightly parties and was the darling of socialites and film stars, putting him in the envious position of social commentator as well as illustrator. His painting, “Rue de la Paix” is a case in point. There are the ultra-smart in their cloche hats, well pulled down over an ear, their furs, brocades and jewels, parading their charms along the street and seemingly oblivious to the stares from  male admirers, from the top-hatted wealthy to the urchins passing by --- not to mention some inquisitive dogs. Van Dongen said he was “passionately in love” with the passing parade and it shows. Van Dongen also liked to say that the secret of being a successful portrait painted was to flatter his subjects.  He always made them a bit taller and considerably slimmer than they actually were.  He also made their eyes larger – after a while, they eyes of his sitters became enormous – their jewels very prominent and endowed them, whether justified or not, with a certain saucy, come-hither quality.  They liked that as well.  Although known for his sardonic sense of humor, Van Dongen’s vision of a Muse had its own bucolic charm.  A woman’s body, he said, “is my landscape.” 

Like Picasso, Marc Chagall had the ability to synthesize the new movements, but the difference in tone is marked.  Chagall grew up in the village of Vitebsk and never quite left it.  There is always something unworldly about Chagall, beginning with his elfin looks and small, agile figure in his favorite matelot sweaters.  Then there is his ravishing palette: his deep, luxurious, almost visionary blues and evanescent, pulsing reds, along with his direct, poetic vision of the world of the shtetl.

There are the familiar motifs: the roof tops, the fiddlers, roosters and floating bouquets of flowers.  In the middle of this hasidic dream are the lovers.  Sometimes they appear in the night sky.  Sometimes they are being banished from the Garden of Eden, or are joyously reunited for their wedding day.  And the lovers always look the same, particularly the girl with her flowing hair and loose white gowns, either wrapped into her lover’s arms on a sofa, or cartwheeling with him across the sky.  Not surprisingly, she is a real person, as well as his muse – his wife, Bella – and he paints her again and again.

Chagall is celebrating the enduring power of myth, in which the same story, which began so long ago, is endlessly repeated; the same longings, the same pleasures and the same rhapsodic fulfillment.  Here the Muse is, rightly, a lost, mourned way of life.  But the girl is in it too.  That is certainly something to muse about.

c. 2013 Meryle Secrest

Meryle Secrest is author of many biographies of figures in the arts including art historians, architects, composers and art dealers including Frank Lloyd Wright, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Berenson, Joseph Duveen and Salvador Dali.  Most recently, she isand author of “Modigliani: a Life,” in 2011. She is a recipient of the National Humanities Medal at the White House in 2006.