The muses in the life of artists in 19th and 20th century

In the 19th and 20th century some male artists had a female muse who inspired them and sometimes, when they were sick, took care of them. Germaine Greer was saying that a “muse’s job is to penetrate the male artist and bring forth a work from the womb of his mind”.

Rembrandt and Rubens painted their wives

The artist can discover himself in his muse like he was transposed in her feminine, sensual body. “She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang”, and she inspires him to bring to light new creations and rediscover himself in every brushstroke of colour put on her painted body on the canvas. The wives of artists were sometimes their models and we can say they were playing the role of the muses in their husbands’ lives. Rembrandt Van Rijn has painted his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh; Peter Paul Rubens represented his wife Helena Fourment in family scenes.

Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612-1642) as Flora, by Rembrandt

Bonnard was using an umbrella to hide his lover-muse

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), postimpressionist, the painter of light, has met on one winter night in 1893, on the streets of Paris, a young woman named Marthe de Meligny age 16, how she presented herself and, who became his lover and his muse. After they have lived together, sometimes in total seclusion, he has married her in 1925. He didn’t know a lot about her family and he didn’t introduce her to his relatives. Later on, he has found out that her real name was Maria Boursin and her age was 24, not 16 and, she was coming from a lower social class. Over the years, Bonnard has overprotected her; he didn’t like any men to look at his wife, why he carried an umbrella, even on a sunny day, trying to shade her. Marthe has been painted as a lot of nude figures and, when she was sick and she was bathing a lot, Bonnard painted her sitting in a bathtub. Marthe was his inspiration and, her beautiful female body was immortalized by him “in paint, prints, drawings, and on film”. When she passed away in 1942, he has written a letter to Matisse, telling him that he couldn’t imagine how his life will be without Marthe de Meligny.


Marthe de Meligny nude painted by Pierre Bonnard. 

Édouard Manet has painted Victorine Meurent who was part of the artistic life in Paris being herself a painter, and music teacher. In1875 she has returned to Paris and was a student 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. Manet, in his well-known painting Olympia” (1863) has shown a “nude white woman lying on a bed as a black servant brings her flowers”. The woman is looking straight forward without any remorse, so differently than in the representation of a nude goddess. Anybody could recognize Meurent. It has been a lot of gossip around the painting and the public was sure that Victorine Meurent was Manet’s lover. When he had died at 51 years old of syphilis, the bad rumours around his love affair were gone with him. His muse has lived for a long time after his death and she has fallen into poverty asking in vain for money from Manet’s widow to survive. It has been a premonition when in the painting Street Singer” (1862) Manet has painted her as a “hungry girl with dark shadows around her eyes” eating cherries.

Olympia (1863) Victorine Meurent painted by Édouard Manet, the property of the D’Orsay Museum in Paris, France 

Henri Matisse’s muse was a nun

Henri Matisse has met in 1941 “a student nurse” named Monique Bourgeois, who took care of him when he was sick with intestinal cancer. That has been the time when he started to do cutouts being immobilized in bed, but he also has painted her in different coloured, full of life interiors. They have been separated by war, but in 1946 she announced him of her decision to enter a Dominican convent in the south of France to become a nun, Sister Jacques-Marie. In the same year, she has met Matisse again when she visited him to ask for a favour, to design and paint the “Chapelle du Rosaire”, near Niece, France, his last masterpiece (1947-1951). In 1992 when she has been asked by the editors at “Paris Match” about her relationship with Matisse she declared: “I never really noticed wither he was in love with me… I was a little like his granddaughter or his muse”.

“The Idol” (1942), Monique Bourgeois (sister Jacques-Marie later) painted by Henri Matisse

RB Kitaj, the American painter, has married in 1983 the contemporary artist Sandra Fisher, a New Yorker he met in London, where he had his studio and, she became his muse until her death at only 47 years of age. In 1994, only two weeks after his exhibit has opened at London Tate, where he was humiliated by critics, his wife passed away from a “brain aneurysm”. He has blamed the museum and declared war on them. With his heart broken and full of rage, he left London with his young son for his native America. But he has never forgotten his muse, and “the role she played” in his artistic life. Why, he put her on a pedestal as the source of the divine and, “his creativity”, just as in literature Dante Alighieri did to Beatrice, his muse. In 2007, he couldn’t take it anymore and he has committed suicide.


The wedding by RB Kitaj, American painter, in 1983 he has married the contemporary artist Sandra Fisher

Love is one of the human feelings nobody can run from it. Why artists will always find muses they will get attached to them and they will feel an internal call to paint over and over again the same female body or the same woman’s face or figure being obsessed by the same human being doesn’t matter the obstacles, the bad advertising and rumours.


Author: Rozalia Mos

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