The Musing behind Musingly


Muse n.

  1. Greek Mythology Any of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom presided over a different art or science. (Calliope (epic poetry) , Clio (history), Euterpe (music), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Polyhymnia (sacred hymns), and Urania (astronomy)
  2. a. A guiding spirit.
    b. A source of inspiration: the lover who was the painter’s muse.
  3. Archaic A poet.

Muse v.

  1. To be absorbed in one’s thoughts; engage in thought.
  2. To consider or say thoughtfully

  3. To have deep thoughts or to meditate.


Eptomology of Muse

Old French ; from Classical Latin musa ; from Classical Greek mousa, a Muse, music, eloquence ; from uncertain or unknown; perhaps Indo-European base an unverified form mendh-, to pay attention to, be lively from source Old Norse munda, to strive.  This is the root from which English also gets the words amnesia (from Greek), mental (from Latin), and mind (from Germanic). A shrine to the Muses was called in Latin a museum.


Conjure up a muse, who do you get?  Bridget Bardot (Roger Vadim), Kiki de Montparnasse (Man Ray), Sue Tilly (Lucien Freud) or any from this list of the most famous muses.  Sexualised, sultry, nude. But these are latter-day inventions, the “real” muse has a more interesting back-story to tell.

The Nine Muses is a story from Greek mythology. Each skilled in an “art” (and as a group symbolizing the arts and sciences), the Muses were believed to live on Mt. Olympus. Here they entertained their father (Zeus) and other Olympian gods with their great artistry.  Later stories also placed them on Mt. Helicon in Boeotia or on Mt. Parnassus where the Castalian spring was a favourite destination for poets and artists.

From Homer to Chaucer and Shakespeare;  from Klimt to Picasso and Warhol – stories of the muses; their beauty and artistry, have inspired many creative works;

As Status Symbol;

Sculptures and Frescoes of Apollo and the Nine Muses, like these below, were produced to represent the Arts and Sciences and their importance in civilizing society.

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Hall of the Muses, Vatican Museum, Rome

Ornate as they maybe, there’s a solidity and seriousness to the figurines here. They are dressed decorously, not wantonly.  Females imagined as artistic, authoritative, cultured. (But they are not at all representative of the life of real women in ancient Greece, how fascinating it would be to know what they thought of these stone sisters).

Hardwick Hall. Photo: Flickr

Later ornate Panels, carved from wood or stone, were found in the wealthiest medieval houses.  Often they served as overmantels and, together with the chimney-piece, were the most prominent part of a grand room.

As Soul Saver;


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This sarcophagus (the Louvre, Paris)  illustrates the ideal of the cultivated man as manifested in Roman funerary art of the second to fourth centuries CE.  The Muses were said to ease the passage of the dead into the next world and ensure the salvation of their souls.



As Society Painting;

The Story of the Muses seems to have been reinvented in European art from the 1530s onwards.  It’s now we see them depicted as joyous, comely, dancing women inspiring (maybe seducing) those around them.  Although more ethereal in nature, the style was to make each muse more identifiable as a character, each holding “their symbol”.

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The Nine Muses by Guilio Romano (1540)


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Parnassus, Andrea Mantegna (1497)


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Hendrick Van Balen (1600s)

The muse has become more curvaceous, frivoulous and ornamental (a thought that seems to have stuck). But’s this is not quite the right interpretation here.  These paintings were specifically commissioned by the great and wealthy to decorate their private salons, small rooms reserved for intellectual activities. Inspired by a fashion for Humanist culture that came from the Italian courts during the 15th century. And life for the early modern European woman wasn’t necessarily all turnips and sackcloth.


As Female Expressionist;

The eighteenth century, the age of enlightenment, bought new thinking and debate about the portrayal of the muses. No longer were they seen as merely providing inspiration to men but as a celebration of the special contribution women were making to the social and cultural progress and economic well-being of the nation. Women who became known as “the bluestockings”.

Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo by Richard Samuel, 1779. National Portrait Gallery

Here Samuel celebrates a group of women writers, scholars, artists and performers, all of whom – except for Elizabeth Montagu, literary critic and Bluestocking hostess – earned a living from their work. The singer Elizabeth Ann Sheridan is in the centre, holding a lyre. The artist Angelica Kauffman sits at an easel. Other women include the historian Catharine Macaulay, the playwright and anti-slavery campaigner Hannah More and the classicist Elizabeth Carter.


As Sexual Revolutionary;

The loosening of conventions in all areas of society created a new type of muse in the twentieth century; more likely a mistress or lover, sometimes fragile and sometimes wanton, with a look that was knowing yet incorruptible.  This muse-artist relationship was often fraught, even tortuous.

Famous muse-user, Picasso, used many in his work, but Marie-Therese Walter is probably the most well-known. He met her in 1927 on a Parisian street, she was 17, he was 45.  After school, she modeled for countless paintings and sculptures. She later bore him a daughter though he refused to marry her, and killed herself in 1977, four years after Picasso died.

Le Reve, Picasso (1932)

See also Gustav Klimt and Emilie Louise Flöge – shown in his 1908 masterwork The Kiss, the two never officially married, they were together until the artist’s death in 1918.

Edie Sedgwick, 60’s socialite, and  Andy Warhol. Sedgwick’s pedigree and iconic sense of style, which included a cropped haircut, dangling earrings, fur coats, and occasionally, no pants, enthralled the rather shy Pop artist. Sedgwick is also said to have been the inspiration for the Bob Dylan songs Like a Rolling StoneJust Like a Woman and Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. She died, in uncertain circumstances, at just 28.

A painter herself, Victorine Meurent is best known for her modeling work with Édouard Manet, who featured her in his seminal 1863 work Olympia. She is also depicted in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1862–63), Woman with Parrot (1866), The Railway (1872), and several other paintings.

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Salvador Dali and Gala

Infamous Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dali,  cuckolded many times by his wife and muse, Gala, who conducted extra-marital affairs at a castle in Púbol, Girona. The painter could not visit without her permission.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, whose mutually ruinous marriage inspired his greatest work throughout the 1920s and 1930s, not least because along with basing several of his characters on Zelda, he inserted material from her diaries directly into his fiction.


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Today muses are much more carefully constructed; photo-shopped and fashioned.  They have become an artifice of the commercial world, touched-up and over-sold models and actresses, with products to sell from fashion to perfume.

Time, then, to bring back the accomplished women of yesteryear – of what musingly calls, ‘the real muses’!




Featured image: Melpomene (Tragedy) by Edward Simmons  (1896)                                                                 Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building



Further Reading:

Male muses of Female artists

Germaine Greer analyses “the muse”

20th Century Artistic Muses

Modern Muse – a social enterprise network,


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