“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who has been so beautiful? What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in its wake?’”
Think about the words of the ultimate American muse, or as she’s been called, the first top model in history, who spent two-thirds of her life in an asylum, forgotten by the world. Do you walk through the galleries of a museum and wonder what’s the story of the people depicted in those amazing works of art? We love to worship the life and works of artists, their skills, and sensitivity to depict human emotions and realities. But what about their models? Do they have merits of their own or are they only valued for posing in front of artists?
That's the dilemma when it comes to analyzing the role of a muse. If you think about the outlining of the term, ancient Greeks thought they played a more active role in the creation process. Muses were deities who expressed themselves through the artist or poet. Just think about the first line of Homer’s Iliad: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles.” In modern times these characters left their active essence and became passive agents that work as sources of inspiration. They're just there to enlighten the artist, but the work is entirely theirs. Perhaps that's the reason why many muses have fallen into oblivion. But what happens when, besides being forgotten, your role in the art world is your doom? That's what we're going to explore with these three characters.
Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)
Meurent, the face of one of the most controversial paintings in the history of art, is best known as Édouard Manet’s Olympia. This painting showing a woman fully naked, lying provocatively and staring directly at the spectator with a sassy attitude, was definitely something very audacious by the time of its presentation. Appearing in many other of the artist’s paintings, much has been said about her life. She has been said to have been a prostitute rescued by Manet in order to become his muse- Others claim she was an aristocrat who wanted to immortalize herself through art. The truth is that little is known about her life, but one thing that has been confirmed is that she was born in a family of engravers, a fact that increased her interest in art.
She started making a living as a model when she was eighteen years old and joined the circle of artists where she met Manet, who made her his muse. Contrary to what many thought about their relationship, theirs was just a professional and friendly relationship. She became a painter and even exposed some of her work at the main galleries in Paris. At some point in the late years of her life, she was penniless and with a poor health. Back when she was young, Manet had offered her a part of the profits of Olympia, but she refused them, arguing that she would be able to make a living from giving music lessons, posing, and painting, but if the time arrived when she no longer could perform these activities, they both agreed he would pay her that money. Later on in life, when she was living in misery, she tried to contact Manet’s widow to remind her of the deal she had with the artist and begged her for help with those profits, but she never got a reply.
Fanny Cornforth (1835 - 1909)
Being one of the main exponents of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti made of his female characters icons in the history of art. But behind those elongated fierce faces and long reddish hair, there's a story of love, heartbreak, and humiliation. According to records of people close to him, it's known that he had a fetish for extremely long hair. That was what first enticed him about Fanny Cornforth. She inspired Rossetti to create some of his mythological and literary characters, since she reminded him of those unapproachable and fantastical beings. Soon, she became more than a source of inspiration and shared moments of passionate love as only a muse and an artist can experience.
One of the most humiliating moments for Cornforth was when Rossetti changed her face in a painting when the person who had commissioned it told the artist that the woman's face was not beautiful. Rossetti tried to conceal this from his muse, but since his friends and family despised her, they naturally made their best to let her know that. She moved into his house, not because of the reasons one might think, but to work as his housekeeper, and soon he lost interest in her. When the painter died, she was able to make a living by selling some of his paintings and drawings his family thought were stolen but weren’t able to prove, and it seems she was moving on. But all of a sudden, history lost track of this red-haired muse until art historian Kirsty Stonell Walker investigated her last records and found out that she had been committed to a mental asylum where she stayed until her death.
Amelie Gautreau (1859 - 1915)
Do you imagine how terrible it must have felt that your biggest collaboration ended up sealing a terrible fate? Considered as the most beautiful woman in Paris, a sort of a modern Helen of Troy, Gautreau was one of those women who enticed everyone she walked by on the streets. Her beauty had no comparison. Her extremely fair skin became her signature feature, and she made the most of it. There were rumors that she even consumed arsenic to get that pale glow on her skin, although it has been confirmed that this was just a rumor and that the only thing she did to maintain her looks was use lavender powder.
She worked as a professional model before posing for the iconic Madame X by John Singer Sargent. Here she appears wearing a beautiful black dress contrasting with her fair skin. But little did she know that this painting would represent her doom. Considered as scandalous and offensive, the critics despised this work of art, forcing Sargent to move to London to continue his career, but what happened to Gautreau? She was completely sunken by the negative reactions the painting generated, to the degree that she threw away all the mirrors of her house, believing that it was all because of her looks. She secluded herself but soon realized that being under the spotlight was her life, and she was soon forgotten. She died in full obscurity and suffering from mental conditions.
These women became immortalized for eternity through the most beautiful human expressions, but somehow their lives weren’t as bright and relevant as they seemed to be in their depictions. We tend to glamorize art and the characters who made it possible, but at the same time, we love the trope of the depressed and tormented artist without thinking on the tragic fate some of their muses endured.
Here are some other examples: