Where Would We Be Without Her? The Female Muse
Written by
Elayne Clift
March 2018
Written by
Elayne Clift
March 2018

History is full of them.  In both the arts and sciences, the woman behind the man is omnipresent, trapped somewhere between the literary Angel in the House and the Madwoman in the Attic.  She is the Muse in the Middle – a nurturing and inspiring force but only occasionally mad. March being Women’s History Month, it seems fitting to give at least some of them their due.


Take the well-known example of Dora Maar, who inspired much of Picasso’s work during the nine years they were lovers.  Maar was a striking woman and a gifted photographer, painter and poet. When Picasso first saw her at the famed Parisian café Les Deux Magots, he was so captivated his current mistress and muse, Marie-Therese Walter, instantly got dumped.  Picasso, who was abusive to all the women in his life, immediately made Dora his model, calling her his “private muse.”  His 1937 painting, “Portrait of Dora Maar,” portrayed her with bright, almost caustic colors and the angular forms that became his trademark.  The same year his “Weeping Woman” revealed a tearful Maar reacting to the Spanish Civil War. “For years,” Picasso confessed, “I’ve painted her in tortured forms…obeying a vision that forced itself on me.”


The French painter Maurice Utrillo also had a female muse, his mother, who urged him to paint his way out of the depression that haunted him throughout his life. By 1920, with the help of his mother’s connections in the art world, he was internationally recognized despite frequent relapses into alcoholism and self-destructive behavior.  As one critic noted,” He owed his redemption largely to the watchfulness of his mother, and then of his wife, who became another gentle but firm ‘jailer.’”


Then there was Camille Claudel, the student and mistress of the great sculptor Rodin.  Camille was a brilliant and gifted sculptor who, like Utrillo, suffered from depression and, some argue, paranoia.  But was it paranoid to claim that Rodin was stealing her work, if not literally, then inspirationally?  Why do so many of his most famous works bear such resemblance to hers? It is well known that she inspired many of his sculptures, as model and muse.  Indeed, in a love letter written in 1883, Rodin tells the young Camille that he “can’t go on” without seeing her. “I won’t be able to work anymore,” he writes.  “Have pity…and you will be rewarded.”  Instead, she was eventually committed to an asylum where she spent the rest of her life.


Turning to musical genius, there is the story of Frederick Chopin and his muse, the controversial writer George Sands (a pen name).  Theirs is a mixed and occasionally murky story but there is no doubt that Sand played a major role in “keeping [Chopin] alive for so long and well enough to compose,” as one biographer put it. While Chopin was only one of many men in the novelist’s daring, dramatic story, she was the love of his life, as well as mother, nurse, companion, and muse.


Great writers also drew inspiration and material from the women who supported and nurtured them physically and emotionally.  James Joyce, for example, would not have produced the well-received stories that became The Dubliners without Nora Barnacle, a chambermaid whom his friends thought beneath him.  It was the tales she told her future husband after a long day’s work in a hotel that he captured in his collection.  And there is reason to suspect that the British poet Wordsworth took liberties with the words his sister Dorothy had committed to her diary.  His poem “Daffodils” is a case in point when viewed against her journal writings.


Similar stories appear in the history of famous scientists, like Albert Einstein, whose first wife Mileva was also a brilliant scientist.  Letters and historical documents suggest that Einstein treated his academically accomplished wife with disdain, dismissing her own scientific knowledge even though she is thought to have co-authored some of his most famous papers. At the very least, she was a credible sounding board who often assisted him with his work.


Many creative men throughout history have acknowledged that their work was inspired by a woman whom they refer to as their muse - someone who has such influence over them that she becomes the inspiration for their creativity. Others have not been so ready to give that credit where it is due.  But from the earliest of times the muse has been recognized as essential in the hearts of men.  As Dante wrote in The Inferno: “O Muses, O high genius, aid me now! O memory that engraved the things I saw, Here shall your worth be manifest to all!”


Whether in the living room, the attic, or the atelier, there’s no denying it:  The muse in the middle is often an essential part of artistic and scientific genius.  It would be nice to have her role acknowledged now and again, lest we forget her too often invisible contributions.


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