Men, Muses, and Madness

5 minute read

Lee Miller's lips, as depicted by Man Ray in  Observatory Time  (1934) / Credit:  Blind Flaneur

Lee Miller's lips, as depicted by Man Ray in Observatory Time (1934) / Credit: Blind Flaneur

A few hours before Adolf Hitler killed himself in a Berlin bunker on April 30th, 1945, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller slipped naked into his bathtub. She struck a casual pose while her boyfriend, Life magazine photographer David E. Scherman, captured her photo. The iconic image made waves—not only for the significance of its setting, but also for the beauty of its subject. Today, it serves as a reminder of a complex woman whose talents were too often overshadowed by her proximity to male artists.

Until recently, Lee Miller was best known as the muse of surrealist photographer Man Ray. Ray was obsessed with her, and made a habit of highlighting her individual body parts in his works.

Miller also posed for Pablo Picasso and French auteur Jean Cocteau, and took on commercial work for Kotex tampons. But it took decades for her to gain respect as an artist in her own right. 

Though Miller often stood in front of cameras, she was equally adept behind the lens. While Man Ray received the lion’s share of the credit, Miller was his creative partner, introducing him to the “solarization” technique that became a signature part of his work. Later, while working as a correspondent for Vogue magazine, she took haunting pictures from the front lines of World War II.

In many ways, Miller's story epitomizes the inherent problems with the artist-muse relationship. For centuries, the muse has acted as a revered, though ultimately passive symbol of enlightenment and creativity. The muse is traditionally a female deity, mistress, lover, or wife, admired for her enigmatic beauty and ability to bestow greatness on a (male) artist. Art history is filled with examples of these women, whose very existence enabled men to create their best work.

For example, there’s Emilie Louise Flöge, depicted in Gustav Klimt’s 1908 painting The Kiss, and Gala Dalí, born Elena Diakonova, a beautiful Russian woman featured in many of Salvador Dali’s paintings and sculptures. In the 1960s, the socialite and model Edie Sedgwick inspired famous songs by Bob Dylan and short films by Andy Warhol. And more recently, model Amanda Lepore played the muse for photographer David LaChapelle.

What an honor to be the force behind a great love song or a painting that stands the test of time! …Right? 

Sort of. We're still left to wonder: who are these women, really? In some cases, when a real, live, flawed human being is re-imagined as an idyllic, passive muse, the consequences can be fatal. 

Take the tragic case of America’s first supermodel, Audrey Munson. At age fifteen, she was discovered by the photographer Felix Benedict Herzog when he spotted her window shopping on Fifth Avenue. Her beauty made her an instant celebrity and even garnered her the title of “Miss Manhattan” (she went on to pose for 15 statues around New York City). 

Audrey Munson with a cat (1915)

Audrey Munson with a cat (1915)

But the good times didn’t last. In 1919, Munson’s life took a turn for the worse when her landlord, Walter Wilkins, murdered his wife Julia outside of their Long Island home. The police reported that his motive was an unrequited obsession with Munson. When the tabloids caught wind of the story, they declared Wilkins’ heinous act a “crime of passion,” sparked by the young model’s beauty. Munson’s reputation was irreparably damaged. In a 1921 column, reflecting on her misfortune, Munson wrote: 

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who has been so beautiful? What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in its wake?’”

In 1931, Munson attempted suicide by swallowing a solution of mercury bichloride. After she survived, she was committed to an insane asylum where she lived until her death in 1996. For Munson, playing the muse only led to emptiness and pain. 

Sure, Audrey Munson's sad fate is an extreme example of the male gaze gone wrong. But the relationship between female muse and male artist is, at its core, problematic. When cast as an object and subordinate, the muse becomes defined by the artist rather than by her own individuality and accomplishments. As the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in her 1949 book, The Second Sex, "man is defined as a human being and woman as a female—whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male."

But what about male muses? Turns out they're usually working in service of men, too. The poet Allen Ginsberg drew inspiration from his lover and artist’s model, Peter Orlovsky. Playwright Oscar Wilde was moved to create by his passion for socialite Lord Alfred Douglas. The painter Francis Bacon depicted the model George Dyer in the nude on several occasions. In each case, the humanity of the muse was secondary to the needs of the artist.

Meanwhile, female artists with male muses remain the Great White Whales of art history. For one thing, it took women centuries to be taken seriously as professionals. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that female artists were visible enough to subvert the male painter/female muse gender dynamic. In the 1960s, American painter Eunice Golden became known for her bold, controversial depictions of the naked male form. And the following decade, Welsh Realist Sylvia Sleigh took things a step further by depicting contemporary male art critics, including her second husband, British critic Lawrence Alloway, in the nude. 

Despite these and other fine efforts to correct the artist/muse gender imbalance, the qualities of a male muse remain fundamentally different from a female one. In the 2003 film The Girl with the Pearl Earring, we meet the painter Vermeer’s muse—a passive, sensual housemaid played by Scarlett Johansson. But in Becoming Jane (2007), the writer Jane Austen’s muse, Thomas Lefroy, is a swarthy lawyer with a bold personality.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1940

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in 1940

In 1998's Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar for her performance as the love interest who inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet. Her modest beauty, blank slate persona, and fascination with the Bard’s work are highlighted as her most winning qualities. Compare this depiction with Frida (2002), the biopic starring Salma Hayek as the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, where the obnoxious philandering of her husband/muse Diego Rivera (played by Alfred Molina) is glorified as one of hismost appealing qualities.

The problem isn’t the fact of having muses, but the gendered restrictions of the pedestals we put them on. When we can point to a beautiful person as the embodiment of divine inspiration, the mystical process of art making becomes less unknowable and more attainable—shifting much of the creative responsibility (though far less of the actual credit) onto the exceptionally lovely shoulders of another. 

However, when we write off the whole person contained between those shoulders as “muse to insert-name-here famous artist,” we uphold a dangerous, outdated ideal and prioritize the needs of the artist over the humanity of his subject. 

Yes, muses have long been a part of artistic lore. But all these centuries later, it’s time for a reboot—one with female muses who, like their male counterparts, retain the depth, dignity, and complexity of actual, living people.