History’s most fascinating muses
From mythical idealised beauties to women who were talented painters in their own right, history is full of captivating muses who have inspired paintings, sculpture, poetry, plays and music. Kelley Swain, author of The Naked Muse, explores the lives of four figures who inspired the exploratory, daring and in some cases surreal art of the fin de siècle era…
Amelie Gautreau – aka Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau (1859–1915)
Parisian socialite and renowned beauty Amelie Gautreau was the ‘Madame X’ in John Singer Sargent’s iconic 1884 portrait of that name (pictured above). The painting sparked a scandal in Paris when exhibited at that year’s Salon: Gautreau’s clothing was considered “flagrantly insufficient”, and both she and Sargent were humiliated by public criticism. Indeed, the furore curtailed Sargent’s career as a portrait painter in France, prompting him to move to London.
Before the scandal, Gautreau was a Parisienne: a ‘professional beauty’ whose looks were said to be so striking that they stopped traffic and caused riots as people tried to catch a glimpse of her. She was fantastically, famously and unnaturally pale; it was rumoured that she ingested small amounts of arsenic to achieve her ‘otherworldly’ glow, though it was later confirmed that she achieved the look by dusting herself with lavender-tinted rice powder (states Deborah Davis in Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, Tarcher, 2003). In the painting Madame X, Gautreau’s exposed ear is pink, though several sources suggest that she rouged her ears to avoid “giving away the natural tone of her un-powdered, naked skin”.
In Strapless, her dramatic account of the story of Madame X, Davis reveals that the once-famous Gautreau never fully recovered from the scandal that engulfed her after the portrait was unveiled. She became a recluse, banishing all mirrors from her home, and died in relative obscurity. Davis describes how Gautreau became obsessed with the portrayal of her image and its public reception. She went from thinking that negative press was bad, to feeling that negative press was better than no press at all.
In the end, ‘no press’ brought Gautreau an unwelcome anonymity and, it seems, a kind of madness. The ‘professional beauty’ had defined herself by her appearance alone. When it failed her, she had nothing left.
Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)
Meurent was a model, music tutor and painter. According to VR Main in A Woman With No Clothes On (Delancey, 2008), “by 1875 [Meurent] had returned to Paris and was attending evening classes at the Académie Julian. Her self-portrait was shown at the Salon in 1876, and after that her work appeared there in 1879, 1885 and 1904. In 1903 she was elected a member of the Société des Artistes Français”.
Meurent is best known as Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), perhaps his most famous painting, which shows a nude white woman lying on a bed as a black servant brings her flowers. Crucially, rather than an abstract representation of a goddess, the woman staring boldly from the canvas is a recognisable individual – Meurent.
In Manet’s Street Singer (c1862), Meurent poses as a woman on the fringes of society, provocatively eating ripe cherries as she holds a guitar. This painting, which shows a hungry girl with dark shadows around her eyes, could be interpreted as tragically prescient: in later life Meurent fell into poverty, appealing in vain for funds from Manet’s widow.
Victorine Meurent as Édouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’, 1863. Painting held at the Musée dOrsay, Paris. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
Audrey Munson (1891–1996)
Known as ‘Miss Manhattan’ and the ‘Panama-Pacific girl,’ Munson was the most popular model of her day: according to the New Oxford Item of 1915 she “posed for three-fifths of all the statuary of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition” (which featured more than 1,500 sculptures).
‘Discovered’ when she was 15 years old, Munson first posed for sculptor Isidore Konti and became Alexander Stirling Calder’s preferred model. In 1915 Munson provoked a crisis among the censors of the American film industry when she played an artist’s muse in Inspiration – becoming the first woman to appear fully nude in a (non-pornographic) motion picture.
In her memoirs, Munson wrote: “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?’ ”
Her life started to fall apart in 1919, when she was living in a New York boarding house. Apparently infatuated with Munson, her landlord, Dr Walter Wilkins, murdered his wife; the tabloids inventively declared it a “crime of passion” inspired (albeit unwittingly) by his tenant, America’s most famous model. Sentenced to execution, he hanged himself in prison, and Munson’s reputation was irreparably damaged.
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Three years later, unable to find work and living with her mother in a small town in New York State, Munson attempted suicide. In 1931 she was committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1996 at the age of 104.
Portrait of Audrey Munson. (Photo by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images)
Kiki de Montparnasse (1901–53)
Alice Ernestine Prin, aka Kiki de Montparnasse, began posing nude for artists when she was 14. She went on to become one of the best-known artists’ models in Paris, as well as a nightclub singer, painter and actress. She posed for dozens of artists including Jean Cocteau, Moïse Kisling and Alexander Calder, and appeared in short films.
Kiki was a muse for photographer Man Ray, with whom she had a relationship throughout the 1920s. It was Man Ray who photographed Kiki as Le Violon d’Ingres (Ingres’s Violin), in which she is pictured from behind, with two violin f-holes painted on her back. The J Paul Getty Museum contemplates the image: “The title seems to suggest that, while playing the violin was Ingres's hobby, toying with Kiki was a pastime of Man Ray. The picture maintains a tension between objectification and appreciation of the female form.”
Kiki De Montparnasse being given directions by a policeman in Paris c1930. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
By the late 1920s Kiki had become known as the ‘queen of Montparnasse’. She performed in cabarets and in the 1930s opened a cabaret of her own, ‘Chez Kiki’. Her look was legendary: a sharply cropped black bob with straight, thick fringe, pale white skin, dark red lips and severely painted eyebrows. This iconic helmet-like hairstyle would be seen in works of art including paintings, photographs and Pablo Gargallo’s 1928 bronze Kiki de Montparnasse.
Kiki was known for her optimism and enthusiasm, as well as for her provocative nature: she considered underwear to be bourgeois, though perhaps this was understandable considering her first job, in a printer’s shop at the age of 12, involved binding copies of the Kama Sutra. She became a symbol of the burgeoning bohemian milieu on Paris’s Left Bank in the 1920s and 30s, along with notable figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.
In 1927, Kiki enjoyed a sell-out exhibition of her own paintings at the Galerie Au Sacre du Printemps. Her memoirs, published in 1929, featured an introduction by Hemingway; the book was banned in the US until the 1970s on the grounds of obscenity. She died as a result of substance abuse at the age of 51, and was widely mourned.
Kelley Swain is author of The Naked Muse (Valley Press, 2016).