Five artists and their muses

  • 13 November 2013

As the National Portrait Gallery opens a new display celebrating Jane Morris, one of history's most famous muses, we look at some of the other men and women who have helped inspire great masterpieces.

Jane Morris (née Burden) by John Robert Parsons, copied by Emery Walker Ltd, July 1865 National Portrait Gallery

Jane Morris (née Burden) by John Robert Parsons, copied by Emery Walker Ltd, July 1865

Originating in Greek mythology, Muses were goddesses credited with bestowing inspiration for literature, science and the arts onto ancient societies. In recent years, the term has been used to describe the women – and sometimes men  – who delight the imagination of artists, musicians and writers, enabling them to produce some of their greatest works.

Here, we take a look at five of our favourites, without whom we might never have had the chance to see Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Bacon's Black Triptychs or Rossetti's Proserpine.

1. Jane Morris and William Morris/Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Although she married William Morris in 1859, it was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who first spotted Jane at a performance at Drury Lane Theatre in 1857 and asked her if she would model for his paintings. Following several sittings with Rossetti she agreed to pose for Morris, who quickly fell in love with the young model and the pair became engaged.

Despite her marriage to Morris, she continued to have a relationship with Rossetti and remained an important muse for both men, posing as Pandora, Proserpine, Astarte and Queen Guinevere. In her own right, Morris was also one of the key embroiderers in the Arts & Crafts movement, and actively involved in the family firm Morris & Co. Photographs of Jane alongside her husband, their daughters and friends such as Georgiana and Edward Burne-Jones are currently being shown in Janey Morris: Pre-Raphaelite Muse at the National Portrait Gallery.

2. Various and Pablo Picasso 

Picasso had several different muses during his career, their influence ranging from sitting for portraits to exposing him to new ideas and beliefs. Among his most well-known muses were Fernande Olivier, the first great love of his life who features as one of the figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Dora Maar, a left-wing activist thought to have encouraged the previously politically-shy artist to paint Guernica. In fact, Maar actually worked on some minor elements of the piece herself, as well as photographing it throughout its development.

Weeping Woman, which relates to Guernica, captures a tear-streaked Maar, her handkerchief symbolising the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.

3. George Dyer and Francis Bacon

The pair first met in 1964 when Bacon claimed he caught Dyer breaking into his home. Attracted to Dyer's vulnerability and trusting nature, Bacon acted as a protector to his younger lover, whose difficult upbringing in east London had led him to embark on a life of crime and alcoholism. During the mid-1960s Bacon shifted his focus to portrait painting and Dyer features prominently in these works. Uncharacteristically tender, they are some of Bacon's most critically acclaimed pieces, although Dyer didn't pretend to understand or even like them, saying, 'All that money an' I fink they're reely 'orrible'. 

Dyer's suicide in 1971 deeply affected the artist. Over the following two years he repeatedly painted single canvas portraits of Dyer, as well as producing his series of Black Triptychs, which detail the moments immediately before and after his lover's death. A selection of the artist's most influential works are currently on display as part of Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone at the Ashmolean.

4. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Punk singer Patti Smith was Mapplethorpe's roommate, best friend and muse, starring in many of his most famous photographs. His work often made reference to religious or classical imagery, such as a portrait of Smith from 1986 which recalls Albrecht Dürer's 1500 self-portrait.

Their creative relationship was, in fact, reciprocal and Smith used many of his pictures on the covers of her albums, while the pair also collaborated on video art projects. Following Mapplethorpe's death in 1989, Smith used the tales from their poverty-stricken days living on lettuce soup in New York as the subject of her book, Just Kids.

5. Celia Birtwell and David Hockney

Textile designer Celia Birtwell met Hockney in Los Angeles in 1964, during which time she and husband Ossie Clark were achieving dizzying success in the London fashion industry. She first appeared in Hockney's work in 1968 and would remain a key muse for the artist in the years to come, his paintings a document of their enduring friendship that continues to this day.

As well as appearing in countless pictures by the artist, Birtwell is also credited with inspiring Hockney's move towards iPad painting after she implored him to trade in his old Nokia for an iPhone, a revelation that changed his approach to work (as well as improving his texting). David Hockney: Early Reflections is on display at Walker Art Gallery now.