When admiring visual art, it is easy to forget about the portrayed subject and to see only the piece we have in front of us. We focus on the meaning of the painting, on the technique with which it was made, on the motif shown – but do we ever stop to think about who was painted? Who is the woman looking at you from the canvas, eyes winking decades, sometimes centuries, away from you? In this article, we talked about what the muses are. Now, let’s dive into the stories of four famous muses of European art. Who are the women who fill our museums, and our minds, with endless beauty?
Simonetta Vespucci, “La più bella delle belle”
Italy, 15th Century. In the picturesque city of Genoa, the noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci neè Cattaneo is known by everyone for her incomparable beauty. Blonde hair, eyes that shine with amber hues and pouty lips: at sixteen she marries the rich Marco Vespucci, scion of a powerful family of Florentine notaries, and moves to Tuscany to live with him. Upon their arrival, the couple is welcomed by the Lord of Florence, one of the most influential politicians and humanists of the Italian Renaissance, Lorenzo de’ Medici. And it takes only a look for his younger brother Giuliano to fall head over heels for beautiful Simonetta. Soon, Simonetta becomes his lover and conquers the social and artistic scene of the city. She becomes so popular that, at the jousting tournament of 1457, Giuliano publicly dedicates his victory to her, flaunting a banner on which Simonetta is painted as Aphrodite, the motto “La sans Par” – the uncomparable one – inscribed under her feet. A public gesture of such magnitude that was bound to eternally skyrocket the status of any Florentine noblewoman. Unfortunately, Simonetta dies of pneumonia shortly after, at only 23 years old. But, for the rest of the 15th century, she remains impressed in the mind of Renaissance artists as the supreme ideal of beauty. Sandro Botticelli, painter of the banner, cannot bring himself to forget her and depicts her posthumously in many of his paintings – the very ones that will make Botticelli one of the most famous Italian artists of all time.
Simonetta Vespucci as seen in many of Sandro Botticelli’s motifs (left and middle) and in Piero di Cosimo’s «Portait of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra» (right).
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Siddal
England, 19th Century. A group called “Pre Raphaelites” aspires to go back to Renaissance art, and to merge in their paintings the ideals of romanticism, idyllic nature, and beauty. And their supreme ideal of beauty happens to coincide with Elizabeth Siddal, a young woman of humble origins better known as Lizzie. Discovered by Walter Horwell Deverell in a hat shop, where she was working under poor conditions, Lizzie has flaming red hair and a Greek nose that makes her the perfect model for the artistic clique. She starts to pose for them, and one of the most famous paintings in which she appears is John Everett Millais' Ophelia (1952). For Ophelia, Lizzie has to sit in a bathtub filled with water during the wintertime, and the oil lamps under the tub do little to keep her warm. Lizzie contracts violent pneumonia that leaves her addicted to laudanum. Soon after Ophelia, she starts a stormy relationship with one of the major exponents of the group, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who is at the same time extremely jealous of Lizzie and reluctant to marry her due to her modest background. Rossetti’s lack of commitment and her own jealousy bring Lizzie to depression, which she vents through painting and writing. She is so talented that John Ruskin defines her as a genius, and Lizzie is the only female artist to exhibit at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition in London in 1857. In early 1860, Lizzie's health deteriorates to the point that not even the immediate marriage with Rossetti helps her recover. A miscarriage in 1861 is the final blow to her unstable condition, and Lizzie tragically takes her own life the next year.
England, 19th Century – a few years later. Apart from Lizzie Siddal, another woman has captivated the attention of the exclusive brotherhood of the Pre Raphaelites: Fanny Eaton. Big brown eyes, sharp cheekbones, refined jaw, and deep brown skin. Fanny, apart from being incredibly beautiful, is also black – which makes her an exception in the eurocentric artistic panorama of the epoch. Elegant and distinguished, Fanny met the Pre Raphaelites when she was working as a model at the Royal Academy. At the time it was very rare for black people to be painted as an artistic subject, but Simeon Solomon is so captivated by her that, in 1860, Fanny and her two children are the protagonists of Solomon's The Mother of Moses. The painting is such a huge success that soon Fanny is contended by every single Pre Raphaelite: Frederick Sandys, Albert Joseph Moore, Joanna Boyce, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais, just to name a few, all strive to have her as a model. In no time, and in a world dominated by white standards of beauty, Fanny Eaton rises to fame as one of the most sought-after muses and models of Victorian London. Unfortunately, some paintings of the time are still affected in different measures by racial prejudice, but others are a rare and dignified representation of a victorian black woman. Perhaps, the most striking work is Head of Mrs. Eaton by Joanna Boyce, where Fanny is painted in a regal pose, enshrouded in fine clothes and with pearls gleaming at her ears – tangible proof of Fanny's actual influence over the period. In the course of history, Fanny Eaton was unjustly sidelined by art scholars – no doubt because of racial prejudices reinforced by her working-class status. Now her story is finally starting to resurface, and Fanny is getting incorporated back into the narrative she contributed building.
Joanna Boyce Wells, 1831–1861, British, Head of Mrs Eaton, 1861, Oil on paper laid to linen, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1991.29
Paris, beginning of the 20th Century. In the turmoil surrounding the internationally famous Surrealist movement, a new arrival is upsetting the rules of the game: Gala Éluard, born Elena Dmitrievna D’jakonova, a Russian model with piercing brown eyes, hooked nose, and immense culture. Her charismatic personality and eery gaze enthrall all Surrealists, of whom she marries the poet Paul Éluard. She is Man Ray's model, Robert Desnons’s guidance, Rene Creval’s confidante, Giorgio de Chirico’s art dealer, and Max Ernst's muse and lover in a triangle that involves her husband as well: the whole movement encloses Gala as its source of inspiration. In 1929, the Éluards and the Magrittes visit a young painter in Cadaquès, Salvador Dalì. For Gala and Dalì it’s love at first sight – and it's the start of an artistic collaboration that will turn into one of the deepest loves of the 20th century. The beauty of their relationship resides perhaps in the fact that Dalì, ten years her junior, always recognizes Gala's professional importance. Gala manages his projects, deals with galleries, schedules a round of twelve patrons that sustain Dalì for one month each, cultivates the network, and acts as a model and financial adviser. Her acumen soon gives the couple financial stability and helps Dalì become one of the most famous artists of their time. In return, Dalì utterly devotes himself to Gala. Of his first exhibition in Paris he writes “this, by now, exhibitions of ours”, he dedicates all of his art to her, signs his paintings as “Gala-Salvador Dalì'' because “It’s with your blood that I paint, Gala”. The two marry in 1958, and by 1968 they are so well-off that Salvador gifts her a castle, which she accepts on the condition he can visit her only if explicitly invited. Gala, “the only mythological woman of our times”, as her husband calls her, passes away in 1982 after a full life as a businesswoman, art dealer, manager, poet, artist, and muse.
Gala and Salvador Dalí photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1935
Benedetta R Fanelli
Benedetta R. Fanelli 25, Milan. Art Historian graduated from Brera Academy of Fine Arts with a master degree in Management of Fashion from Bocconi. Benedetta has always been enamored with luxury and greek mythology, and she loves to tell stories behind our jewels.