10 famous muses throughout history

A black and white drawing of a goddess-like female resting

There are many popular art pieces that you’ll have seen over the years, from before you were even born. As always, the beloved paintings, pictures and photographs we see displayed in galleries, including the V&A were once created by talented artists. However, the motivation to create their wondrous designs is thanks to their art muses.

In this blog, we talk you through the many famous muses who influenced past and present artwork. After all, these people are the reason we’ve had such brilliant illustrations to admire throughout history.

So, what is a muse in art?

 A painting of three nude, female art muses holding an apple

When referring to artwork, the term “muse” describes the influences and inspiration behind a design. Famous muses in history would typically be woman, and an artist would illustrate this female in her purest form, taking inspiration from her personality, looks and interests.

It refers to the idealisation of a woman, as well as pieces of art that dismiss(ed) that female’s greatest accomplishments. So there is more than meets the eye when it comes to art muses over the decades.

The famous muses you need to know about

Painters, sculptors and illustrators usually had a female partner, lover or companion as their muse, and this became a theme throughout history. But who are the most popular famous muses, and what art pieces/movements did they inspire?  

1.    Dora Maar

Dora Maar was a Parisian poet and artist, who had a major influence on Pablo Picasso’s work. She was one of Picasso’s romantic partners, who was deemed worthy enough to capture the different stages of his 1937 oil painting, ‘Guernica’. Picasso would never let anyone picture him while he created his masterpieces, so this was a privilege. Dora Maar inspired a number of Picasso’s paintings, including the likes of, ‘Woman Dressing Her Hair, ‘Weeping Woman’, and more obviously, ‘Portrait of Dora Maar.’

2.   Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel was the famous muse of the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. As well as being Rodin’s lover and assistant, she dabbled in art herself. In fact, Camille Claudel was a talented sculptor and a famous artist. Despite producing superb sculptures herself, she was largely known as the lover and muse of Rodin because of her affair with him.

Sadly for Camille, Rodin refused to leave Rose Beuret – his long-term partner, for her. Once they separated and he lost his muse, people commented that his art had suffered as a result!

3.   Victorine Meurent

You’re probably familiar with the French modernist painter, Édouard Manet, but did you know that Victorine Meurent was his muse? Victorine was the reason he broke free of tradition during the 19th century, being one of the first artists to paint modern life, at a time when this hadn’t really been seen before.

Manet spotted Victorine for the first time as she walked gracefully through the street. After forming a friendship with Manet, she then modelled for two of his most iconic yet controversial paintings: ‘Olympia’ and ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ – where she is posing in the nude. Victorine’s relaxed manner as she posed and Manet’s depiction of her naked body, was deemed scandalous at the time. And this brought a whole new wave of art that may never have come to light, had it not been for Victorine.

4.   Elizabeth Siddal

Elizabeth Siddal, known as ‘Lizzie’, was one of the most famous muses in history. Like Camille Claudel, she was an artist, and she inspired artists such as:

  • Walter Deverell
  • William Holman Hunt
  • John Everett Millais.

Lizzie was also Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse. After she met him in 1849, she started modelling for him, and soon after he began painting pictures of her. She then became his wife, and he forbade her from modelling for any other Pre-Raphaelites!

Even Elizabeth’s death in 1863 inspired Rossetti, who a year later created the beautiful painting, ‘Beata Beatrix’, which shows Lizzie as a praying Beatrice.

5.   Kiki de Montparnasse

Alice Ernestine Prin, also known as Kiki de Montparnasse, was a muse to the American visual artist, Man Ray and was a profound influence on other 1920’s Surrealist artists. During the ’20s, Man Ray and Kiki became friends, which later blossomed into a loving partnership. Throughout this time, he created paintings, sculptures and what he’s commonly known for, photography prints that were inspired by Kiki. Many pieces of his pieces depicted Kiki herself, being the focus in works such as ‘Noire et Blanche’ and ‘Le Violin d’Ingres’.

6.   Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

There are many famous muses in art, but Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were iconic because this couple looked to each other for their muse. The illustrations they designed portrayed their complicated relationship. Despite their love and fascination with one another, Diego Rivera had an affair with Frida’s friend - singer and actress, María Félix, which nearly caused the two to split.

The incredible, detailed oil painting, ‘Deigo and I’ depicts the two of them, and highlights the betrayal Frida felt after Diego’s infidelity. Although this piece was created with sadness, portraying each other and their roles as each other’s muses were brilliant and unique.

7.   Georgia O’Keeffe

As well as being a famous muse, Georgia O’Keefe was a talented artist - an American modernist artist, in fact, painting large, colourful flowers and landscapes. She was greatly known for her role as Alfred Stieglitz’s muse, though, and some of his key photographs were inspired by her, and even feature her.

Famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, met Georgia O’Keeffe in 1916 and later got married to her in 1924. In total, Alfred Stieglitz captured 300 images of Georgia, and it was these pictures that he was known so well for. Thanks to Georgia, he became more and more successful.

8.   George Dyer

George Dyer changed the way people viewed art muses. He was firstly, a male muse, which wasn’t seen as often during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he also had a criminal past. George Dyer was the muse, art model and lover of Francis Bacon – the figurative, British painter. Francis Bacon’s pieces, such as ‘George Dyer Talking,’ and ‘The Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror’ focused primarily on George himself.

Unfortunately, Dyer committed suicide and shortly after, Bacon created a series, ‘Black Triptychs’, expressing Dyer’s battle with depression through art. Bacon’s oil painting, ‘Triptych, May-June 1973’ was dedicated to George Dyer, created in memory of his lover.

9.   Kiki de Montparnasse

Kiki de Montparnasse was known for many things; she was a memoirist, painter, and cabaret singer – but she was also a muse for a handful of Surrealist artists from the 1920s. Kiki massively influenced Artist Man Ray, with his most famous artwork featuring her - ‘Le Violon d'Ingres’ (1924) and ‘Noire et Blanche’ (1926). Kiki modelled for Man Ray and inspired his Surrealist imagination, and she clearly had a big impact on his life as a result!

10. Emilie Louise Flöge

Fashion designer, Emilie Louise Flöge was influential, being one of the key members of the Vienna Art Nouveau movement. She was ahead of her time, which made her one of the most famous art muses in history!

Emilie was lifelong partners with Gustav Klimt, although the nature of their relationship is still a hazy subject. This iconic fashion designer appeared in a number of his paintings, including prominent works such as his oil-on-canvas painting - ‘The Kiss’ (1908). Without Flöge, Gustav Klimt’s work wouldn’t have been as varied, interesting or unique.

Discover muse-inspired art and more

Photograph of two paint palettes on a wooden table

There are so many famous muses who shaped the art world over the years, and still do to this day. Now you know all about them, browse the different photography prints and illustration artwork inspired by the many muses throughout history.