Ruth Millington’s funny stories about art muses

To Ruth Millington Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces adds another dimension to the revisionist and gender-inclusive art history gaining ground today, joining books such as Donna Seaman’s Unknown Identity: Rediscovering Seven American Artists (2017) and by Jennifer Heagie The Mirror and palette (2021). Instead of telling the stories of those behind the canvas, however, Millington takes the women (and nine men) On the canvas as her subject, setting out to paint the muse as “an important, empowered, and active agent of art history.”

Unfortunately, the book is organized like many others of its kind, taking on the task in different chapters, each describing a new muse. Jumping across time and place across 30 unrelated portraits, he constructs what feels like art history. To create some structure, the chapters are grouped under headings such as The Artist as Muse (cases where the artist’s muse is also an artist), On the Love of the Muse (when the muse and artist are romantically involved), and soon.

The book’s failures to achieve its purported purpose were mainly due to this structure, which required Millington to tell the stories of the artist and the muse—in addition to the artworks they inspired—in no more than eight pages. To do this, she often resorts to a series of rhetorical questions (“Who were these male muses? Were they complicit in her feminist intervention? What did they think of these provocative paintings?” she writes in her opening paragraph on Sylvia Slay), platitudes ( Beyoncé “manifests”; gender-swapping works are sloppily described as “subversive”) and the tendency to tell rather than show (“the myth of the muse … has been blown,” she insists in conclusion). The fact that the book contains illustrations only at the beginning of each chapter severely limits the author’s ability to show—something that art is ultimately in a unique position to do.

Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt, photographed in 1909 by Heinrich Böhler (Wikimedia Commons)

By not including images of, say, Paula Rego’s twisted, earthly figures taken from fairy tales (modeled by her “muse” Lila Nunez), Millington must let her writing take their place—which pales in comparison to the visual experience of the work of Rego. “Reconstructing passive princesses, Rego transforms them into active heroines,” the author writes, thereby remaking these narratives with “strong psychological power.” A reductive and rather dry interpretation of an artist whose work is far from ordinary, this description left me cold – as it did many others.

However, Millington thrives in the historical chapters, where he deals with the lives and work of muses and artists who are no longer considered contemporary. The first three chapters of the book, which focus on a former enslaved man, Juan de Pareja (Velázquez’s sitter and studio assistant), Dora Maar (Picasso’s “weeping woman”), and fashion designer Emilie Flöge (believed to be the woman in Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss) are her strongest, as they most successfully describe the lives behind some of the most famous faces in art history. By making a connection between Klimt’s iconic decorative style and the inventiveness of Flöge’s avant-garde fashion, for example, Millington ensures that the next time you see Klimt, you see Flöge.

Gala Dalí’s chapter is equally illuminating, as Millington adds contours to the story of the surrealist muse her biographer calls an “evil lady.” The author reveals her more as a slick agent who was instrumental in shaping the career of her second husband, Salvador Dalí, who was unknown when they began their relationship. However, Millington is careful not to downplay Gala’s transgressions, creating space for the complexity of her character, who seemed to revel in the adoration of others while shirking her own caring responsibilities as a mother.

Undated photo of Gala Dalí with Dr. George Labalme (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Siddall, perhaps best known as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, is also a woman operating with agency, as Millington reveals that her frequent model for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a strategic move on the muse’s part to win enough money to fund his own — quite successful — artistic endeavors. Millington’s insistence, however, that Sydall was “an active protagonist in pictures she starred in, bringing not only beauty but creativity to the role” is unconvincing and feels based largely on conjecture rather than evidence.

Although these chapters for the most part shine, the book never loses its note of didactic insistence, concluding with a “manifesto of the muses” that reads not as a radical declaration but as an impartial bill of rights: “Let the muses be glorified and recognized for the value they bring, including in … historical narratives,” he insists. Millington is perhaps overzealous in enforcing this principle. Ironically, she would have done better if she had let the artists do some of the talking.

Muse: Uncovering the Hidden Figures Behind Art History’s Masterpieces by Ruth Millington (2022) is published by Pegasus and available online and in bookstores.

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