LONDON - The power of the muse over the painter – a relationship that is sometimes fractious, sometimes sublime – runs through the history of art. Artistic creation, mental instability and sexual energy are closely related, which makes painters colourful lovers; it also means that their work is often influenced by their passionate relationships. The influence of the muse is manifold. Often the artist simply strives to capture the beauty of a particular model, or perhaps is stimulated into painting by a love affair. Another expression of this productive relationship can be found in paintings, which celebrate physical love; and, of course, there are those in which the painting serves as an exorcism of an acute romantic unhappiness.   

Picasso in his studio with a scupltural portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Pablo Picasso and His Women

Where to start with Picasso? Would he have been able to paint at all without the stimulus of a new woman in his life every five or ten years? Fernande Olivier – Olga – Marie-Thérèse – Dora Maar – Françoise – Sylvette – Jacqueline (and several in between): each of them conjures up a different artistic period in his life, almost a different artist. In each incarnation he is supreme. Picasso’s magnificent in 1932 oil, Femme Assise prés d’une Fenêtre is an act of tribute to Marie-Thérèse Walter, and a celebration of the rapturous early phase of his love for her.


Picasso's 1932 portrait of his muse (above) will be offered at Sotheby’s London in February.


Modigliani’s 1917 portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, his companion and muse.

Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani met Jeanne Hébuterne in spring 1917. She was shy, quiet, and delicate, and exceptionally beautiful, and Modigliani painted her often. His inevitable elongations of her face and figure capture her grace but miss the voluptuousness that is evident from her photographs. She moved in with him, which must have been a challenge given his consumption of drink and drugs and his wayward lifestyle: on top of that, he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. But she adored him. In November 1918 their daughter Jeanne was born in Nice where they were wintering for his health. In January 1920 she was pregnant again, when Modigliani finally died. The day after the distraught Jeanne Hébuterne threw herself to her death from her parents’ fifth floor apartment, also killing her unborn child.



Dagny Juel modelled for Munch’s series of Madonna paintings.

Edvard Munch and Dagny Juel

Munch’s life was one long conflict, a simultaneous flight from and attraction to women. They were vampires, sucking his blood from him. They were hideously alluring. Woman was the whore ‘who at all times of day and night seeks to outwit man, to cause his fall.’ Woman was the earth mother, the producer of children. Dagny Juel was special to him: she was niece of the Norwegian prime minister, and before arriving in Berlin where Munch had set up his studio in 1893 she sent her photo on ahead ‘to awaken interest’. She had heavy eyelids and a secretive smile, and the most luscious body. She was enigmatic, unpredictable, and promiscuous. He used her as his model for a series of intense images – Jealousy, Madonna (one of the great erotic images of art), The Day After, Puberty; in her time she was both sensual goddess and mother saint to him. She ran off with a Polish poet and some years later ended up being shot dead by another lover in The Grand Hotel, Tbilisi.


La Cicciolina inspired Koons to create his Made in Heaven series.

Jeff Koons and La Cicciolina

If you are a pop artist whose working material is kitsch objects produced by the commercial world, there is a logic to making your muse a pornography star. La Cicciolina, born the Hungarian Ilona Staller, is an Italian porn actress who also pursued a career in Italian politics, being elected to Parliament in 1987. Possibly her most famous political pronouncement was an offer at the outset of the Gulf War to have sex with Saddam Hussein in return for peace in the Middle East. She came into Koons’ life in the late 1980s, marrying him in 1991, but they broke up in 1992. Their most famous cooperation produced the Made in Heaven series, which records a startling range of acts of congress between artist and model, many in the form of garishly-tinted photographs or sculptures.


Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s young maid, lover and muse.

Rembrandt van Rijn and Hendrikje Stoffles

In 1649, in one of those awkward domestic upheavals to which artists are prone, the widowed Rembrandt got rid of his existing housekeeper Geertje Dircx and replaced her with a younger maidservant Hendrikje Stoffles, who soon found herself sharing the master’s bed. Physically she suited and stimulated him. He employed her as his model, clothed and naked, and she featured in a number of his best-known pictures, notably the lovely Bathsheba (1654). By using people familiar to him domestically for his models for grand historical and biblical painting, Rembrandt achieved an unprecedented degree of realism.


Bacon painted Study for Head of George Dyer in 1967.

Francis Bacon and George Dyer

Bacon had a colourful private life. He met George Dyer in 1964 when he caught him breaking into his home. Dyer, who came from an East End criminal family, soon after moved in permanently and gave up crime in order to devote himself full-time to drinking. He became the subject of much of Bacon’s painting, a presence at once physical but surprisingly tender. Dyer himself commented, ‘All that money an’ I fink they’re really ‘orrible,’ but he liked the attention the paintings brought him. In October 1971 Dyer accompanied Bacon to Paris for the opening of the artist’s retrospective at the Grand Palais; in the hotel room they shared Dyer died of an overdose of barbiturates. From beyond the grave, Dyer continued to exert an influence as the theme of death haunted Bacon’s work, in particular in his three Black Triptych masterpiece.

Extracted from Philip Hook’s Private View: An Intimate Dictionary of the Art World, to be published by Penguin in Autumn 2013.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]