A recent essay in the Telegraph entitled “The Secret Lives of the Great Artists’ Lovers” begins: “For as long as man has painted, he (and it usually is a he) has painted his lovers.”
Art enthusiasts have long been fascinated with the lives of the artists behind their favorite works, and particularly with the elusive relationship between artists and the muses that inspire them. But when we think of artists and muses, it’s hard not to think of a male artist and a female muse -- whether we’re harkening back to the ancient Greek goddesses, or thinking of the supine forms of female nudes that line the walls of the world’s art galleries. Contemporary exhibitions like “Picasso: the Women Behind the Artist,” currently on display at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, or “Madame Cezanne,” at the Metropolitan Museum, only serve to emphasize the longevity of this idea.
Over the centuries, female artists have worked alongside their male peers, conquering gender discrimination to create deeply complex and personal art. Although many female artists’ lives were as rich in incident, in love, and in artistic relationships as their male counterparts, it can be difficult to find depictions of the men that were these artists’ lovers, friends, and muses. For example, a ban on female artists drawing nude models from the Renaissance until the early 20th century meant that, despite the innumerable female nudes filling museums, the erotic gaze of female artists was kept in check.
Landscape #160, by Eunice Golden. (Courtesy of the artist)
For artist Eunice Golden, who rose to art-world prominence in the 1960s, that dynamic needed changing. “The female nude for centuries has been the object of male needs, fantasies and desires,” Golden told The Huffington Post. “I longed to incorporate my own erotic fantasies into my work. I wanted to challenge the art-historical bias against the male image as a subject for women artists.”
In her groundbreaking work "Male Landscapes" (1968-1980), Golden turned her gaze on the male body, drawing a variety of male models in lush, erotic compositions that, decades later, still have the power to startle. "Male Landscapes #160," which has been exhibited at the Whitney, reveals the male form in a way that is simultaneously erotic, vulnerable and deeply intimate. For Golden, painting the male form was her own expression of women’s liberation.
“While other women artists portrayed the female body, often their own genitalia, as an emblem of their own power,” she said, “I wanted to go beyond that, to find my own path to challenge society’s entrenched ideologies and mores. My muses were male artist friends who posed for me and supported my work.”
Golden’s work is a powerful example of the female gaze, a uniquely female expression of the way the erotic imagination of an artist can fuel her creativity. Other feminist artists, like Nan Goldin and Sylvia Sleigh, similarly sought to reverse the typical gender dynamic of artist and model. But for other women throughout art history, the relationship between female artist and male muse has often been more subtle, hidden behind the canvas, rarely depicted. The love stories, tormented flings, and artistically fertile mentorships that filled female artists’ lives have given rise to some of their greatest work. Below, we explore the relationships between ten female artists and the men that provoked, challenged, loved and inspired them to create.
Berthe Morisot & Eugene Manet
Portrait of Eugene Manet, by Berthe Morisot, 1875 (Wikimedia Commons)
Berthe Morisot, an Impressionist painter, drew inspiration from no less famous a pair of brothers than Edouard and Eugene Manet. Morisot met Edouard Manet in 1868, at age 27, four years after she had first begun to exhibit her work in Paris. She was already part of the burgeoning Impressionist movement, and drew Manet into its circles, where the two rubbed shoulders with Degas, Renoir and other artistic luminaries. In 1874, she married Eugene Manet, Edouard’s brother, also a painter. Her relationship with both brothers involved steadfast friendship and reciprocal artistic influence. Morisot frequently drew domestic scenes, utilizing Eugene as a model along with their daughter, Julie.
Leonora Carrington & Max Ernst
Leonora Carrington, "Portrait of Max Ernst" (Pinterest)
"I didn't have time to be anyone's muse... I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist," wrote Leonora Carrington in 1983. Carrington emerged as an artist in the Surrealist circles of interwar Europe, where she painted her signature dreamscapes. In 1937 she met Max Ernst at a party in London. The two began living together in Provence in 1938, and in 1939 she produced this gripping portrait of her lover. They were riven by the horrors of World War II, when Ernst was arrested in 1941 by the Gestapo and Carrington fled to Madrid, where she had a nervous breakdown. Though the lovers were reunited after the war, they had been temporarily driven apart by the same dark forces that shattered Europe.
Nan Goldin & 'Brian'
Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed (Flickr)
Photographer Nan Goldin called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), her first book, “a diary she let people read.” The photography collection famously chronicled her wild life among the punk and drag scenes of 1970s New York City, an aesthetic critics called “heroin chic.” But in The Ballad, Goldin also created a searing portrait of her relationship with a man only identified as “Brian.” In Nan and Brian in Bed, dusky sepia light frames the duo, whose body language speaks of a growing rift. Goldin also included a photo that revealed the reason for their breakup: the powerful portrait Nan One Month After Being Battered, a closeup of her severely bruised face, is an unforgettable depiction of domestic violence -- a violence Goldin took hold of and turned into art.
Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera
Frida Kahlo (Flicker)
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had a famously tempestuous relationship. The two married in 1929, when Kahlo was 22, Rivera 42. Their subsequent relationship involved miscarriage, mutual infidelity, divorce, remarriage -- and a fantastic amount of art. In this 1931 portrait by Kahlo of the couple, Rivera's features are minutely observed, but his gaze remains distant, unknowable -- perhaps symbolic of the complex relationship between the artist and her model.
Florine Stettheimer & Marcel Duchamp
Florine Stettheimer, "Portrait of Marcel Duchamp" (Tom Swope/Blogspot)
Florine Stettheimer, born to a wealthy family in 1871, spent her life among New York's artistic elite. The salons she hosted with her two sisters, Carrie and Ettie, featured guests like Georgia O’Keeffe and Gertrude Stein. Stettheimer struck up a lively friendship with Marcel Duchamp, and painted the French artist in several portraits as well as satirizing him in her poetry.
Sylvia Sleigh & Lawrence Alloway
Sylvia Sleigh, "The Turkish Bath" (1973) / Wikimedia Commons
Sylvia Sleigh was a prominent part of the New York feminist art scene in the 1960s and '70s. Like Eunice Golden, Sleigh was known for her explicit and frequent depictions of male nudes, in a conscious effort to subvert the male painter-female subject gender dynamic that prevailed in the art world at the time. In 1973, she painted "The Turkish Bath," a reworking of Jean Auguste Dominique-Ingres’ 1862 painting of the same title, depicting nude men instead of nude women. Her male models for the painting were contemporary art critics, including her second husband, British art critic Lawrence Alloway.
Sigrid Hjertén & Isaac Grünewald
Sigrid Hjertén, "Portrait of the Artist Isaac Grünewald" (Flickr)
Sigrid Hjertén, one of the most important modernist painters in Sweden, might never have reached the heights she did if not for her husband, Swedish expressionist painter Isaac Grünewald. Grünewald saw great potential when he first met Hjertén in 1909, and he convinced her to study in Paris under Henri Matisse, who was Grünewald’s own mentor. The two married in 1911 and together brought Modernism to Sweden. Grünewald, a perennial subject of Hjertén’s art, prompted Hjertén to explore themes such as the intersection of her roles as an artist, wife and mother as well as the frustrations of being a female artist in the male-dominated early 20th century. Hjertén died in Stockholm in 1948 from complications caused by a botched lobotomy.
Marie Laurencin & Guillaume Apollinaire
Marie Laurencin, "Group of Artists" (Musee Marmettan Paris / Huffington Post)
Marie Laurencin was one of the few female Cubist painters who rose to prominence in France in the early 1900s, traveling in the same circles as Pablo Picasso and Francis Picabia. In 1907, she began a tumultuous affair with poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the famously sensual poet who coined the term “surrealism.” The affair lasted until 1913. In her painting Group of Artists, she depicts (from left) Picasso, herself, Apollinaire (center), and Fernande Olivier. Apollinaire’s pensive gaze, wrenched from the book in his hands, locks with the viewer’s.