Unpacking the Muse: Just an Inspiration or Something More?


The following article discusses topics of a sensitive nature which may be disturbing and/or controversial to some readers. Hence, reader discretion is advised. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not reflect Sunway University and Sunway College’s values.

Content warning: Mentions of sexual abuse and forced imprisonment.

We begin with a question: What is a muse? 

A muse, according to the Britannica Dictionary, is an individual who inspires creative individuals such as artists and writers. It is suggested that the verb “muse” is derived from Old French “muser” or Gallo-Roman “musa”, which means “to ponder” and “snout” respectively. 

While the word itself has been used by artists and creators of the past and present when describing their influences and to ascribe a reason for their inventiveness, some may instead be more familiar with the noun “Muse”. In Greek Mythology, the Muses are nine sister goddesses of the arts and sciences. They were known as Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. Each of these Muses were associated with different fields of scholarship, varying from music and astronomy to comedy and tragedy.

The ancient Greeks revered the Muses. They crafted sculptures in their likeness and strived to summon them, believing that if they succeeded, the Muses would bestow the blessing of inspiration upon them. Needless to say, the Muses or a muse can be considered compelling figures that some believe are integral to the creation of new and original works.

The problem with muses is that the idea of them can be misused or misinterpreted by some, who may come to believe that muses are destined to be fetishised, mute and submissive. The reality is that there is more to muses than the idea of the muse. 

Sue Tilley posing for a photo in front of Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996)

British artist and model Sue Tilley was once the muse of multiple paintings by Lucian Freud, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) and Sleeping by the Lion Carpet (1996). Art dealer and gallerist Brett Gorvy mentions that Tilley is “very much in control, taking on the artist and the viewer” in the paintings, being a modern approach on the Odalisque (which in art terms is “a reclining nude female figure”) and the fertility goddess (which are artworks of women where their secondary sexual characteristics, such as a rounded figure and breasts, have been emphasised). Art historian and critic Ruth Millington shared that as a muse, Tilley was just as much of an “active participant in artmaking,” capable of introducing her presence and individuality to each completed piece of art.

The role of the muse, as it appears, goes much deeper than being a basic model or reference for the artist. According to Millington, a true relationship needs to be established between both artist and muse so that both may be inspired by each other. This implies that the muse exerts a certain degree of influence into the art being created, just as much as the artist does. Perhaps while the artist contributes in the way of technique, skill and artistic choices, the muse is the revelation behind the artwork. They would be someone who fully comprehends the artist’s vision and can independently and competently aid the artist in their pursuit of materialising a particular idea or concept. This would explain how both roles exert certain efforts towards the completion of a work, and how the muse is not a static point of reference.

Millington further reveals her beliefs that the term “muse” can be oppressive, as 20th-century artists may have insisted that muses are passive and submissive, which meant that the image of the muse was depicted as a compliant female romantic partner. It also became a way for artists to conceal any of their muse’s involvement, no matter how indirect, in plain sight.

An example to illustrate the extremities of the idea surrounding the word “muse” would be Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels The Sandman. A storyline has writer Richard Madoc imprison Calliope, one of the Muses from Greek mythology. He sexually abuses her to receive inspiration and brilliant ideas, paying no heed to her sorrows and individuality. Despite being fiction, this plot point not only suggests that the verb “muse” can and may have been used to objectify the subject referred to as “muse”. It discredits the muse’s assistance or support, and reinforces the thought that muses are meant to be obedient and unassertive. 

Millington also writes about artist-muse relationships, describing muses during the Renaissance period as “icons of idealised and sexualised beauty” due to their nude and alluring portrayals. However, this relationship evolved during the Victorian era, where the Pre-Raphaelites began painting by taking acquaintances as their muses. One of these more well-known muses could be Elizabeth Siddal, who is most recognised for her work in John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2). For the painting, Siddal laid in a bath for hours, eventually catching pneumonia after prolonged exposure to cold water. Her commitment and professionalism is to be admired but is rarely acknowledged, with The Guardian writer Kate Wyver expressing that “the idea of suffering for your art is problematic enough, without it being someone else’s art you’re suffering for.” Siddal was just as much of a muse for her spouse Dante Rosetti, and both of them shared ideas and clearly inspired each other in their artworks.

A more optimistic or possibly progressive view of the muse has been explored in Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A key scene in the film occurs when Marianne paints a portrait of Héloïse. What makes the moment striking, besides the palpable tension, is the suggestion that the artist and muse both possess an equivalent status. Even though it is conventionally assumed that the painter is the one doing the observations (after all, they are the ones manifesting their ideas on a physical medium), the film proposes that the muse is also partaking in the creation of art. Héloïse, as the subject of the painting asks, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” In this case, the connection between artist and muse is deep and true. Both are involved in a process of inspiration, observation, and creation. Besides subverting the male gaze, it balances the dynamics between artist and muse, crediting both for their efforts.

Muses should not be vague dismissals as an artist’s source of inspiration, hence they and their contributions towards any forms of art should be valued. A muse should be more than mere excuses, they are human beings capable of intelligent thought and deep emotion. While history may not have treated muses too kindly, there is hope for this to change in the present and future through education and the raising of awareness. As the artist feels, believes, and dreams, so does the muse. 

Written by: Jia Xuan

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