Whatever happened to the Muse? She was once the female figure -- deity, Platonic ideal, mistress, lover, wife -- whom poets and painters called upon for inspiration. Thus Homer in the Odyssey, the West's first great work of literary art: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, of twists and turns driven time and again off course." For hundreds of years, in one form or another, the Muse's blessing and support were often essential to the creation of art.
Muses Through the Years
Poets stopped invoking the muse centuries ago -- eventually turning instead to caffeine, alcohol and amphetamines -- but painters, musicians, and even choreographers have celebrated their actual female inspirers in their work up until recent times. And now, we learn, having a muse isn't a benefit restricted to artists.
According to a recently opened exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion," the muse lives on as the fashion model who inspires masses of women to dress in ways that capture the spirit of the age. With all due respect to the Met's curators -- and to the alluring fashion photographs that now grace the museum's walls -- such a definition of the muse would have made traditional muses run for the sacred hills.
The original muse could not have been further from an exemplar of style. Her function was not to inspire imitation, but to create new insights and new artistic forms. She was effectively invisible, a gust of divine wind that blew through the human vessel lucky enough to be graced by her attention.
In ancient times, the muse was a divinity, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. At first, there were three muses, then the Greek poet Hesiod expanded their number to nine: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Terpsichore, Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Urania. It was the bureaucratic Romans who assigned a particular function to each muse: Terpsichore was the goddess of dance; Thalia, of comedy; Melpomene of tragedy and so on.
They were benign, helpful beings, who -- according to Hesiod -- approached a deserving poet and conferred on him three gifts: a laurel branch to use as a sceptre, a "wondrous voice" with which to sing his verse and knowledge of the future and the past. Still, they could be cruelly protective of their ethereal turf. When a Thracian poet named Thamyris challenged the nine muses to a singing contest and lost, they blinded him and struck him dumb. Legend has it that the Sirens, no mean crooners themselves, also tried to compete with the muses. They too were defeated and, as a result, lost their wings and fell into the sea.
From the start, fierce competition characterized the relationship among the poets who required the muses' services. There were countless aspiring artists and only nine goddesses to go around (think of the muses as the first Guggenheim grants). Hesiod is emphatic about the fact that the muses approached him and only him, making sure to tell us that "they taught Hesiod fine singing as he tended his lambs."
By the time Virgil sat down to write his epic, the Aeneid, in the late first century B.C., he had to assert himself against his daunting precursor. Whereas Homer invoked the muse in the very first words of his epic, Virgil forcefully proclaims in his opening line that he alone will be singing "of arms and the man." Eight lines later, he tersely requests the muse to merely tell him the "causes" of the founding of Rome, the implication being that Virgil himself will use his own powers to spin the causes into the story of their extraordinary effects.
About 20 years later, the Roman poet Ovid greedily did both Homer and Virgil one better. At the outset of his "Metamporphoses," he embraced not one muse, but all nine: "Inspire me, O gods...." Yet for sheer chutzpah, you cannot beat Dante Alighieri's invocation, in the Paradiso -- the last part of his Divine Comedy -- not just to the nine muses, but also to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and Apollo, god of poetry and music and the muses' boss, as it were.
Dante's Divine Comedy, completed in the early 14th century, is a turning point for musedom. By the end of his massive poem, the muses have been left behind by the heavenly Christian music of the spheres, "a song," writes Dante, "that excels our muses." The pagan nine had been replaced by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. That, in turn, freed artistic inspiration to go seek more earthly sources.
Dante's source was an actual person, a young girl named Beatrice Portinari whom Dante claims he first saw on the street in Florence when they were both nine. He fell in love with her, but she died in her early 20s. Dante paid tribute to Beatrice first in a breathtaking volume of sonnets and prose poems he called "La Vita Nuova" -- "The New Life" -- and then made Beatrice a central figure in The Divine Comedy, where she is cast in the roles of teacher, guide and sacred ideal.
Beatrice symbolized both earthly love and Christian truth -- the poet's lust became "sublimated," as we would say, into spiritual longing. From then on, generally speaking, muses appeared in two varieties: unattainable ideal, like Beatrice, and sexual object.
In the first category, Dante's contemporary and immediate successor, Petrarch, addressed over 300 poems to Laura, a woman believed to be Laura de Noves. Petrarch outdid Dante by making his muse unattainable on two counts: She was married when he met her, and she died 11 years later. Death, like myth, protected the artist from real entanglement and real obsession with his muse. He was free to let his imagination run wild without the encumbrances of physical desire.
That began to change in the Italian Renaissance, when painters invented a new tradition of muse-worship. Whereas the muses of the 14th century took on the heavenly character of the untouchable Madonna, the muses of Italian painters in the 15th and 16th centuries were often earthly, and very touchable, women, whom the artists had sit for them for long stretches of time and then portrayed as the paragon of the unreachable female.
The model for two of Raphael's most famous Madonnas was a Sienese baker's daughter named Margharita di Luti, who was probably Raphael's lover. The painter Fra Filippo Lippi went in for a riskier muse relationship: He seduced a young nun named Lucrezia Buti and went on to live with her, using her as the model for several portraits of the Holy Mother.
Up to this point an artist could not have asked for more cooperative inspirers. Then came Andrea del Sarto, who had what you might call the first really bad muse experience in Western art. According to the standard accounts of del Sarto's life, his wife Lucrezia drove him to distraction with her demands, her jealousy and her amorous adventures with his apprentices. But such was her physical perfection, that he gave and forgave her everything.
A roundup of notable muses throughout history.
One of the nine muses of Greek mythology, her specialty is epic poetry. She was the inspiration for Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
A muse deviously gained by the painter Fra Filippo Lippi. She was the model for several portraits of the Holy Mother.
Salvador Dalí's wife and muse Gala, whom he met in 1929, tortured her sex-averse husband with her flagrant affairs.
Along with basing several of his characters on his wife, F. Scott Fitzgerald inserted material from her diaries directly into his fiction.
Artist and muse to her husband, the painter John Currin. Ms. Feinstein's pale likeness can be seen in many of his paintings.
Even when they were vixens, Renaissance muses were comfortably subordinate to their artists, bound to the latter's aesthetic and sexual needs while the artists were free to disport themselves around town.
Most modern muses were powerful and often creative women in their own right, like Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) who didn't just inspire photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but influenced the direction of his art. Salvador Dalí's wife and muse, Gala, whom he met in 1929, shrewdly tortured her sex-averse and masochistic husband with her flagrant affairs. Suzanne Farrell, George Balanchine's astonishing dancer-muse, allowed the legendary choreographer to fall in love with her while rejecting his advances, only to marry another dancer the very day Balanchine obtained a divorce from his wife.
There were some famous exceptions to the growing equality between muses and their clients. Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927 on a Parisian street when she was 17 and immediately made her his mistress, sometimes having his chauffeur wait outside her private school to pick her up when school let out and take her to the artist's studio, where she modeled for countless paintings and sculptures. She later bore him a daughter though he refused to marry her, and killed herself in 1977, four years after Picasso died.
But if a muse can breathe divine air into the imagination, she can just as easily blow out the flame of attention and hard work. William Butler Yeats's relationship with Maud Gonne, an Anglo-Irish heiress, was one of particular muse-havoc. Gonne was an Irish nationalist and revolutionary graced with flowing waves of red hair. Yeats met the great beauty in 1889 when he was 24 and that, he later wrote, was when "the troubles of my life began."
Gonne rejected his several marriage proposals, explaining that he was neither a true revolutionary nor a Catholic. By the time they finally consummated their relationship in 1908, almost 20 years after their first encounter, Yeats had soured on her overbearing views. Her role as muse ended the instant they embarked on their night of love. "Was there another Troy for her to burn?" Yeats wryly wrote about her chaotic effect on his life, not long after their tryst.
F. Scott Fitzgerald might have expressed the same sentiment about his wife, Zelda, but in fact their mutually ruinous marriage inspired him to produce his greatest work throughout the 1920s and 1930s, not least because along with basing several of his characters on Zelda, he inserted material from her diaries directly into his fiction.
Nowadays muses are hard to find. There have been a few celebrated ones in recent years: the photographer Lee Friedlander's wife, Maria, whom he photographed over four decades; John and Yoko Ono (mutual muses); painter John Currin and his Botticellian wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein.
Yet the muse-world has thinned out. Artists may still have a muse, but the once-standard and then legendary relationship is no longer part of our common vocabulary. These days a muse's role as equal partner and/or equal talent now outweighs her or his function as inspiration. Who, in our proudly individualistic culture wants to feel like a valet to someone else's imagination?
Then, too, the recession of the muse -- if not her outright disappearance -- has to do with a general discomfort about ideals on pedestals, not to mention a feminist rejection of women as objects. But it is also related to the diminishing value attached to the idea of originality. More and more people seem to feel comfortable with cultural experiences that are familiar, rather than original ones that they are encountering for the first time. Witness the current popularity of Hollowood sequels and prequels, as well as familiar facial lineages on screen -- Linda Fiorentino to Sean Young to Anne Hathaway -- not to mention universal storylines -- from the flying house in Wizard of Oz to same in Pixar's "Up" -- that we can all vicariously enjoy together.
That could be why contemporary muses, such as they are, exist as highly public presences, universally available. Think Nicole Kidman, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus. Contrary to the Met's new show, the muse's role has not been taken over by the fashion model so much as by the celebrity-performer who appears to masses of people. Rather than acts of creation, our mass-muses inspire escapist daydreams. And indeed the daydream is where art begins -- the universality of the idle trance makes all of us potential Picassos. Considering the toll artists and muses traditionally took on each other, this might not be a bad development. It certainly seems appropriate for our new age of more modest ambitions.
Lee Siegel's most recent book is "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob."
Corrections & Amplifications
Virgil wrote the Aeneid in the first century B.C. A previous version of this essay incorrectly said he wrote it in the first century A.D.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8