The concept of the artist’s muse is not a new one. Having originated in Greco-Roman mythology and with hints to the ideal in religious texts, the muse is a figure – stereotypically female – that inspires an artist in their creation of art – be it music, art, literature, poetry or film. While it can be viewed cynically as a perhaps an excessively romanticized idea, the muse is evidently still of great relevance in the artistic world today. Many prominent figures in artistic spheres are well-known for their relationships with their figures of inspiration – most stereotypically in, but not limited to, the world of song-writing. Numerous songwriters have named some of their biggest hits after the object of their obsession: see “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and The Zutons’ “Valerie” – not forgetting, of course, the soft-rock classic “Sweet Caroline”, written by Neil Diamond for John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline.
Although muses are typically depicted as females exerting their influence over men, it seems reductive in this day and age to ignore the influence of male muses on the artistic works of women. The cliche of the muse has too-often been reduced to the 21st century trope of the two-dimensional ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ type; merely a device to further the tortured, awkward bumblings of an insecurely narcissistic male. But when we look at the modern history of art, we can see what a truly significant and worthy part of an artist’s process muses – both male and female – has been. This article counts down ten of the most influential muses to have captivated various artists, both classic and contemporary, and to have influenced their works.
10. Janis Joplin — Leonard Cohen
Kicking off the countdown is singer-songwriter Janis Joplin. Canadian lyricist Leonard Cohen’s melancholy melody “Chelsea Hotel” (both the first and better-known second version) was inspired by his liaison with Joplin in the infamous hotel. Cohen has made no secret of her influence on this particular song, claiming that Joplin was the inital inspiration for the concept. Their relationship brought out in Cohen bittersweet lyrics reflecting on the cutthroat world of music which they both inhabited, such as “And clenching your fists for the ones like us / Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, / You fixed yourself, you said, ‘Well never mind, / We are ugly but we have the music”, which have contributed to its remaining one of Cohen’s best-known and -loved songs to date.
9. Ray Bradbury — Steven Spielberg
At number nine is Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury’s death in 2012 compelled legendary movie director Steven Spielberg, whose multitude of works include such classics as Jaws and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to reveal that the sci-fi writer was Spielberg’s inspiration for many of his science fiction works. The director admitted in a written statement following the author’s death that “[Bradbury] was the muse for the better part of [Spielberg’s] sci-fi career”, an astonishing and fitting tribute to the author’s memory.
8. Etienne Balsan — Coco Chanel
Number eight brings the first male muse of this list, and also the first female artist. Etienne Balsan, while being by no means the only muse to influence Coco Chanel over the course of her career, was arguably the most important in providing the initial inspiration for her world-famous designs. Balsan, a wealthy cavalryman, introduced Coco to horse riding. Initially she would ride in Balsan’s clothes, but over time began adapting and tailoring masculine cuts to better fit her shape, realized at Balsan’s expense through use of his personal tailor. So began Chanel’s legendary career of designing androgynous fashion for women, thanks to Balsan’s influence (or at least that of his sports clothes).
7. Sarah Brightman — Andrew Lloyd Webber
Branching into the world of theater at number seven is Sarah Brightman. Muse to one of the most famous and formative figures in modern musical theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Brightman was the inspiration for one of his best-known musical adaptations, Phantom of the Opera. Brightman is the living embodiment of ethereal angel-voiced beauty Christine Daaé, the heroine of the musical, while Lloyd-Webber is fantastically well disguised as the less-than-beautiful tortured composer lurking in the depths of the opera house. Just as Christine is the inspiration for the Phantom’s music, so too was Brightman for Lloyd-Webber. Their artist-muse relationship developed into romance and eventually a marriage which, while ending in divorce, still served its purpose from a callous perspective in terms of creative output.
6. Helena Bonham-Carter – Tim Burton
While notoriously having many muses — actress Winona Ryder and actor Johnny Depp amongst them — the most famous of director Tim Burton’s muses is Helena Bonham-Carter. Although public statements regarding his partner in both romance and work may not be overly affectionate (Burton has stated that he cast Bonham-Carter in Alice in Wonderland because “she’s got a big head”, in stark opposition to his waxing lyrical about Mia Wasikowsa in the role of Alice), there is no doubt that she has exerted considerable influence over his works. Featuring in almost all of Burton’s films following their first collaberation on Planet of the Apes in 2001, Bonham-Carter stands out as, incredibly romantically, having been the inspiration for a large amount of Burton’s dark and at times unsettling artistic output.
5. Zelda Fitzgerald — F. Scott Fitzgerald
The middle of the countdown brings Zelda Fitzgerald, wife and muse of American author Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, better known as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having recently come to the fore of media consciousness due to the 2013 film adaptation of one of his more famous texts, The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had a tumultuous marriage with Zelda Sayre, seemingly comprising mainly alcoholism and affairs. However, it cannot be denied that during the course of their relationship and under the influence of his wife (and that of alcohol) he wrote many of his best known works, including Gatsby — rather impressively billed as “the classic American novel” — and The Beautiful and the Damned.
4. Whoopi Goldberg — Lupita Nyong’o
Number four on the list is the source of inspiration for new star of screen Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance in the 2013 movie 12 Years a Slave has earned her sudden and worldwide acclaim. Nyong’o cites Whoopi Goldberg as her acting inspiration, having seen her in the screen adaptation of The Color Purple at a young age. Lupita said that it was the first time she’d seen someone of colour on screen, recalling that “Whoopi Goldberg had hair like me and was dark like me. I thought, maybe I could do this for a living.” So inspiring a small but vital realization, the world has Goldberg to thank for the astounding talent that is Nyong’o.
3. Boots — Beyoncé
At number three is muse to renowned musician, and force of nature, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Widely viewed as herself an inspirational figure for women everywhere, Beyoncé has admitted to finding her newest source of stimulus in an unusual figure: not in her husband or daughter, but in her working with the secretive singer/songwriter/producer who goes by the name of Boots, with whom she collaborated on her self-titled latest album Beyoncé. Real name allegedly Jordy Asher, Boots “wrote 4 songs and co produced 80% of the album”, according to a tweet issued by Beyoncé’s creative team mds. Beyoncé has also praised him and his influence on her in an interview, saying “he plays evey instrument. He is a lyricist. He is an innovator, and I’m so proud to work with him.”
2. Yoko Ono — John Lennon
At number two is possibly the best-known artist-muse relationship in musical history: that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Although Lennon’s previous romantic relationships had affected his prolific songwriting over the years, his connection with Yoko Ono was unparalleled. Lennon’s songwriting was influenced hugely by his artistic partner, as is unsubtly showcased in the titles of songs such as “Dear Yoko” and “Oh Yoko!” Not content to confine the public perception of her influence to his musical output, however, Lennon has said in an interview with Playboy that “it wasn’t that [Yoko Ono] inspired the songs; she inspired [him]”. As such, Ono is rendered a — or potentially the — quintessential musical muse.
1. Edie Sedgwick — Andy Warhol
Number one on the list is the beautiful and tragic Edie Sedgwick: society heiress, actress, model and muse to numerous prominent artists. Over her lifetime Sedgwick’s influence extended over singer-songwriters Bobs Neuwirth and Dylan, providing the inspiration for Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, among other songs. However, perhaps most captivated by her was pop artist Andy Warhol, with whom she had an intense partnership during the 1960s. Sedgwick featured in twelve of Warhol’s short films, including Kitchen and Space, and was the source of his artistic inspiration for many years. She is noted as being one of Warhol’s ‘superstars’, which, while probably not having aided the fragile state of her mental health, catapulted her into the hemisphere of fame as a classic and legendary muse.
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