Amusing Stories About the Muses of Art

Ruth Millington’s Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces adds another dimension to the revisionist and gender-inclusive art history gaining traction today, joining books like Donna Seaman’s Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists (2017) and Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette (2021). Instead of telling the stories of those behind the canvas, however, Millington takes the women (and nine men) on the canvas as her subject, setting out to paint the muse as a “momentous, empowered, and active agent of art history.”

Unfortunately, the book is organized like many of its kind, taking up the task in disparate chapters, each describing a new muse. Jumping across time and place through 30 unrelated portraits, it constructs what feels like bullet-point art history. To create some structure, chapters are grouped under headings such as “The Artist as Muse” (instances where an artist’s muse was also an artist), “For the Love of the Muse” (when the muse and artist are romantically involved), and so on. 

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The book’s failures to achieve its purported aim are due mainly to this structure, which demands that Millington tell the stories of the artist and muse — in addition to the artworks they inspired — in no more than eight pages. To do this, she often resorts to successive rhetorical questions (“Who were these male muses? Were they complicit in her feminist intervention? What did they think of these provocative paintings?” she writes in her opening paragraph on Sylvia Sleigh), platitudes (Beyoncé “manifests”; gender-swapping works are wanly described as “subversive”), and a tendency to tell rather than show (“the myth of the muse … has been exploded,” she insists in the conclusion). The fact that the book contains illustrations only at the beginning of each chapter severely curtails the author’s ability to show — something art is, after all, uniquely positioned to do. 

Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt photographed in 1909 by Heinrich Böhler (Wikimedia Commons)

By not including images of, say, Paula Rego’s contorted, earthbound figures lifted from fairy tales (as modeled by her “muse” Lila Nunes), Millington must let her writing take their place — which pales next to the visual experience of Rego’s work. “Reclaiming passive princesses, Rego turns them into active heroines,” the author writes, thus recasting these narratives with “strong psychological force.” A reductive and fairly dry interpretation of a painter whose work is far from ordinary, this description left me cold — as did many others.

Millington thrives in historical chapters, however, where she addresses the life and work of muses and makers who are no longer considered contemporary. The book’s first three chapters, which focus on a formerly enslaved man, Juan de Pareja (Velázquez’s sitter and studio assistant), Dora Maar (Picasso’s “weeping woman”), and fashion designer Emilie Flöge (who is believed to be the woman in Gustav Klimt’s “Kiss”), are her strongest, as they most successfully flesh out the lives behind some of art history’s most famous faces. Drawing a connection between Klimt’s iconic decorative style and the inventiveness of Flöge’s avant-garde fashion, for example, Millington ensures that the next time you see a Klimt, you’ll also see Flöge. 

Gala Dalí’s chapter is equally elucidating, as Millington adds contours to the story of the Surrealist muse her biographer called a “wicked lady.” The author reveals her, rather, to be a canny agent, instrumental in shaping the career of her second husband, Salvador Dalí, who was unknown when they began their relationship. Millington is careful not to paper over Gala’s transgressions, however, creating space for the complexity of her character, who seemed to revel in the adoration of others, while shirking her own responsibilities of care as a mother. 

Undated photograph of Gala Dali with Dr George Labalme (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Siddall, perhaps most famous as John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia,” is also a woman acting with agency, as Millington reveals her frequent modeling for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be a strategic move on the muse’s part to earn enough money to finance her own — quite successful — artistic endeavors. Millington’s insistence, however, that Siddall is “an active protagonist of paintings for which she performed, bringing not just beauty but creativity to the role,” is unconvincing and feels based largely on supposition rather than evidence. 

Though these chapters, for the most part, shine, the book never sheds its note of didactic insistence, concluding with a “muse manifesto,” which reads not as a radical declaration, but as a dispassionate bill of rights: “May muses be celebrated and recognised for the value they bring, including in … historical narratives,” it insists. Millington is perhaps overzealous in fulfilling this tenet. Ironically, she would have fared better had she let the artists do some of the talking. 

Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces by Ruth Millington (2022) is published by Pegasus and is available online and in bookstores. 


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