The Artist's Muse

On the tradition of inspiration and how the muse empowers the creative relationship between artist and sitter.

On the tradition of inspiration and how the muse empowers the creative relationship between artist and sitter.

Andy WarholMarilyn (F. & S. 23),1967. Evening & Day Editions London

From Beatrice and Dante to Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet, to Gala and Salvador Dali, the artist-muse relationship dates back centuries; millennia, even: the term muse itself channels Zeus’s daughters, the nine Muses, inspirational goddesses of the arts and sciences and the source of all knowledge emanating from poetry, songs, and myths. Over time, the word has come to refer to a person who is an artist’s source of inspiration, driving their creativity through the formation of an intuitive, visceral, and complex relationship. Often collaborating with artists in their most seminal works, the muse elevates their status and emboldens their practice. Historically, the muse is a role reserved for women, characterized by a romanticized imbalance of power between male artist and female sitter. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, artists began to subvert this ancient tradition. The trope of passive and powerless women being molded into an object of beauty by the male gaze became an outdated and futile endeavor. Instead, the artist-muse relationship became a force to drive the artistic process, with the role of both participants becoming equally important.


Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe are Pop Art’s acme. Shortly after hearing of Monroe’s untimely death in August of 1962, Warhol scoured movie memorabilia shops across New York City in search of the perfect image to commemorate the screen goddess. Finding his muse in a movie still from her 1958 film Niagara, Warhol went about immortalizing Monroe in over fifty paintings. Captivated by the power of her gaze and the alluring quality of her personal tragedy, the artist returned to her image time and again. In 1953 alone, he made over twenty paintings using the same image, and when he established Factory Additions in 1967, Monroe starred as his first published screenprint portfolio in Marilyn [Lots 46 and 47]. Twenty years later, his favorite leading lady featured in Warhol’s Reversal series – the artist’s infatuation with Monroe never faded.

Her visage, imbued with unrivaled charisma and star appeal, amplified the artist’s own obsession with the notion of fame. Monroe epitomized the commodification of icons, a fame phenomenon sweeping through Western media in the 1960s. Reflecting philosophically on the meaning of reality and recognition, Warhol reiterated Monroe’s face compulsively, imitating how the relentless projectors of Hollywood’s Golden Age once had. Like Marylin’s movies, Warhol fetishized and celebrated fame’s kitschy surface, freezing it in time. As we fix our face upon Monroe, the elusive nature of her life and death weighs heavy upon us, and we are ultimately forced to reckon with the somber link between stardom and exploitation. To think of Warhol is to think of Marilyn – the bold colors, the instantly recognizable sultry eyes, the iconic simplification of forms. Her image prevails alongside the name Andy Warhol.

Banksy, Kate Moss (Purple/Orange), 2005. Evening & Day Editions London.

Kate Moss and Banksy

Equally as bold, seductive and blonde – Banksy’s Kate Moss (Purple/Orange) [Lot 40] wittily pays homage to Andy Warhol’s iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Moss flaunts Monroe’s signature features – her tailored curls, flirtatious eyelashes, bold lips, and prominent beauty spot. Banksy’s use of flat, solid colors in contrasting tones of purple and orange acts to capture Warhol’s vivid Pop aesthetic. Although Moss emulates Monroe closely, she does not imitate her gaze – whereas Monroe seductively stares straight out at the viewer, Moss gazes into the distance with a tantalizingly nonchalant coolness. In recreating Warhol’s work in the 21st Century, Banksy both praises the artist and adds a new level of criticality. Moss succeeds Monroe as muse: the contemporary fashion idol. Much like Warhol with Monroe, Banksy attempts to harness the power of Moss’s persona to make a visual icon that also satirically brings light to the commodification of fame.

By drawing a parallel between Moss and Monroe, Banksy also draws a parallel between Warhol and himself. The two artists are often compared for their cut-to-the-chase approach that communicates witty social commentary while using straightforward visual language. But, of course, there is one significant difference: whereas Warhol cultivated his own celebrity status and became a star with a widely recognizable image, Banksy has fervently preserved his anonymity, becoming ever more alluring. By adopting Kate Moss as muse, Banksy teases the fragility of fame, fusing the two together in one image.

Chris LevineEquanimity (Crystal Edition), 2004. Evening & Day Editions London. 

Queen Elizabeth II and Chris Levine

The date: 14th November 2003. The setting: the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace. The artist: Chris Levine. The sitter: Queen Elizabeth II. The magnificent portrait of Her Majesty, the photographic origin of Equanimity (Crystal Edition) [Lot 77], was commissioned to celebrate the eight-hundred-year allegiance between the island of Jersey and Great Britain. Placing the Queen before a flat, black background, Levine took over 10,000 images of his subject across two sittings, to create the original holographic three-dimensional work. The result was an image praised by the National Portrait Gallery as “the most evocative image of a royal by any artist,” and by Mario Testino as the Queen’s most beautiful portrait ever. In the two decades since, Levine has returned to the Queen repeatedly, using her as muse again and again.

In a role reversal, the sitter of these works inhabits power over the maker, and a fine balance is found between art and representation. Unlike the heavy stylization applied by Banksy and Warhol, Levine cherishes the fine detail of his subject, and maintains this finesse throughout his works, even those most recently abstracted. By choosing to dress the Queen with the 1820 Diamond Diadem (her coronation crown) and an ermine cloak, Levine recognizes the historical tradition of royal portraiture. While the artist holds the brush, it is the gravitas held by his muse that prevails throughout.

David HockneyCelia with Chair (M.C.A.T. 306), 1986. Evening & Day Editions London.

Celia Birtwell and David Hockney

“I always try to dress up for him,” says Celia Birtwell on modeling for David Hockney. After being best man at textile designer Celia Birtwell and fashion designer Ossie Clark’s wedding in 1969, Hockney found a muse in his life-long friend. While Celia says she was initially terrified of sitting for Hockney, she has since become as much associated with Hockney as swimming pools. Most famously appearing in Hockney’s seminal painting Mr and Mrs Clark (1971), she permeates his oeuvre as a subject in all mediums, including approximately thirty prints, such as Celia with Chair [Lot 216].

Tracking the images of Celia made by Hockney delves into not only his stylistic evolution but also his welcoming of new making techniques. Embracing her as muse, Hockney has shown her in large scale “classic” paintings, fragmented cubist compositions, delicately etched single portraits, and even copy machine prints. Their friendship grew with every sitting, which were surprisingly quiet – the experience was “very serious,” she says, and that she often now hears the sounds of a lapping Los Angeles swimming pool or the rustle of the trees in London when looking at the images herself. In contrast to the fame surrounding the muses of artists past, Hockney proves to us all that inspiration can be around any corner.




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