Uncover the profound connections between artists and their muses, unraveling the enchanting inspirations that have shaped the course of artistic expression.
Dance of Apollo and the Muses, Baldassare Peruzzi | Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre
What is Artistic Inspiration?
Often the most entrancing players in the stories of Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine goddesses who served as the sources of inspiration for various art forms. They inspired artists, poets, musicians and thinkers. Artists would invoke the Muses to seek their blessings and inspiration, believing that they would bestow creative genius upon them. The concept of the Muse has traveled far past mythology and today, artists still consider the things that drive their creative spark their “muse.” Today, muses can take many forms—they are simply the thing that spurs an artist to create their original work. A muse is a great source of artistic inspiration.
Artistic inspiration manifests in different ways for different artists. It might arise from a deep emotional connection to a particular type of person or a group of people. Artistic inspiration might come from a certain place that incites creativity. It can also be found in written words—from the Bible to Shakespeare to myths and poetry. And finally, many artists still find a divine calling from specific people whom they regard as their creative muse. Great muses have come and gone throughout the history of art, and it is important to remember not just their influence on other people’s work but also to remember them as individual, lived-in people who made impacts in their own ways.
For some, artistic inspiration strikes spontaneously. Others seek it out in solitude. Some search for their creative muse by engaging with the external world or collaborating with other artists. Read on to learn about the different ways artists find inspiration and discover more about the great muses in the history of art.
4 Types of Artistic Inspiration
Some artists find their creative inspiration in specific types or groups of people. Edgar Degas
, for example, found boundless inspiration in studying the athletic and limber forms of ballet dancers. His frequent observations of these dancers informed his masterful ability to capture the nuances of the human form in both his sculpture and painted works. Degas did not necessarily find his muse in a specific dancer, but rather in ballet dancers at large, incorporating the different aspects and curves of different dancers’ movements into his breathtaking works.
Above: Edgar Degas, Arabesque on Right Side, c. 1885 | M.S. Rau. This bronze sculpture exemplifies Degas’ signature style and wonderful understanding of the human form. Learn more about Degas and other Famous Sculptors Through the Ages here.
Vincent van Gogh
also found his artistic inspiration in different groups of people for his artwork. In fa
ct, he found deep inspiration and kinship when painting members of the relatively isolated community of Nuenen. A pivotal moment in van Gogh's artistic journey, van Gogh returned to his family's home in Nuenen in 1883 and turned toward portraiture. He sought to portray the local peasants not as an outsider viewing them as a spectacle, but rather from a place of empathy. Van Gogh’s portraits rendered these locals with dignity and expressive individuality. The personal strife and careworn appearances of the people of Neunen deeply inspired van Gogh and helped him produce some of his most emotive and stirring works including his renowned masterpiece, The Potato Eaters
, completed in 1885.
Poignant and intimate, Tête de paysanne à la coiffe blanche immortalizes an ordinary local Nuenen woman in a deeply stirring, emotional way. Tête de paysanne à la coiffe blanche by Vincent van Gogh | M.S. Rau
was captivated by several sources of inspiration, including the stunning beauty of florals and portraits of children. Renoir found deep inspiration in his own children and his portraits of his kin are his most intimate triumphs of the medium. Scholars note a shift in Renoir’s depictions of children after the birth of his own. Rather than rendering children as buttoned-up accessories of adults in formal portraits, he chose to highlight their expressive and curious individuality.
Renoir held somewhat progressive ideas about childhood for his time. He believed children should be able to make their first contact with the world around them without adult or external interference. He insisted that children should have just the right kinds of colors and objects around them and promoted a more organic and natural environment for his children. This approach might shed light on Renoir’s unique choice to portray his children in a feminine-like way. Often, Renoir’s portraits of his sons are mistaken for girls as Renoir usually dressed them in girls’ clothing, feminized their names and sometimes adorned their blonde hair with ribbons. He would capture the children this way as they played with toy soldiers and made drawings, perhaps making a rather progressive commentary on the strictures of gender on the malleable mind of a child.
Portrait De Coco Et Fleurs By Pierre-Auguste Renoir | M.S. Rau
This portrait depicts Renoir’s son Claude at age five, sitting in profile and deeply engrossed in a drawing. Just above the painterly portrait, Renoir renders another of his favorite subjects, a profusion of flowers, with rich color and detail. The bouquet of anemones and ranunculus coupled with the child’s pink blouse and flaxen blonde tresses creates an overwhelming sense of sweetness and sentimentality in the artwork.
The family lovingly nicknamed their youngest son Cloclo, which later became Coco. Soon, Coco became Renoir's favorite model, surpassing his elder brother Jean. Renoir was keen to paint portraits of his children prior to their first haircut as he felt long unshorn hair captured their childhood innocence. When Coco was born, Jean’s hair was cut for the first time and his father rarely painted him again. Of the shift, Jean Renoir recalled, "It was while we were living in the rue Caulaincourt that my father had me pose for him most often. A few years later my brother Claude, who was seven years younger than I, was to take my place in the studio. Coco certainly proved one of the most prolific inspirations my father ever had."
By juxtaposing this portrait of his young son with a bouquet of floral blooms, Renoir emphasizes the de
licate beauty and innocence of childhood, underscoring that children must be protected, nurtured and cherished.
While some artists find inspiration in a specific person or muse, others find their muse in specific types of people that conjured a certain sentiment or feeling. Whether found in the graceful and athletic movement of dancers, the haunting eyes of careworn peasants, or the blossoming innocence of children, some of art history’s most famous artists have found inspiration for their artistic expression in certain groups of people.
For centuries, artists have flocked to centers of arts and culture to seek inspiration. Certain metropolitan cities have attracted aspiring artists and their stunning architecture and views provided a fountain of inspiration from artists from Canaletto and Titian to Eduoard Manet and Camille Pissarro to Gustave Caillebotte and Vincent van Gogh. Today, artists still find deep inspiration in places like Venice, also known “the floating city” and Paris, the “city of lights.”
Florentine By Patrick Hughes | M.S. Rau
Patrick Hughes Vedute or Italian View Paintings have been called his “pièces de résistance.” Whether painting the iconic canals and landmarks of Venice or the magnificent Baroque facades of Florence’s famed buildings, Hughes marries art historical traditions with his groundbreaking techniques and finds deep inspiration in the places that have sparked creativity for artists for centuries.
, the semi-aqueous landscape of the city creates a somewhat surreal scene, heightened by Hughes’s illusionistic perspective, with the waters of Florence lapping up on the sidewalks of the city streets. Hughes has captured the beloved landmark of the Ponte Vecchio pedestrian bridge in the background, an everlasting symbol of Florence that grounds the composition in reality.
Hughes coined the term reverspective
for these types of constructions, which he describes as “perspective in reverse.” He utilizes the traditional idea of one point perspective in which an artist can create the illusion of receding space and dimensionality with converging lines upon a single vanishing point on the horizon line. However, he reverses this concept by bringing these lines forward into space using 3-dimensional planes, but still abides by a strict vanishing point. Hughes says, “When the principles of perspective are reversed, the mind is deceived into believing that a static painting can move of its own accord.”
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877 | Art Institute Chicago
Paris has long held status as a Mecca of artistic inspiration throughout the history of art. For the emerging Impressionists, the Haussmannization of Paris — which accounted for the widening of boulevards and the advent of the strolling flaneur type — provided a well of inspiration. Famous artists like Caillebotte and Camille Pissarro documented the beautiful, changing city, in several of their most celebrated compositions. The city herself, called the city of love and the city of lights, remains an important muse for creatives today and is a great source of inspiration for generations of artists, including Pissarro's own lineage.
La Place De La Concorde, Paris By H. Claude Pissarro | M.S. Rau
The architectural beauty of La Place de la Concorde is captured in all its glory in this resplendent Parisian cityscape by Hugues Claude Pissarro. The celebrated artist renders the site's notable landmarks in detail along with pedestrians in brightly-hued attire, showcasing his deft skill and signature vibrance in the pastel medium. Pissarro captures the detailed edifices in the distance and the sculptural beauty of the square's fountain, using speckled swathes of lavender and orange to render the light of the afternoon sun reflecting from the cobblestone streets. Like his grandfather Camille, H. Claude Pissarro remains captivated by the muse that is Paris.
While certain metropolitan cities have long charmed artists, nature has accounted for perhaps the most prolific muse of all, inspiring creators for thousands of years. For example, the French countryside and more specifically the Forest of Fontainebleau was the muse for the emerging Barbizon School
. Tucked away in the picturesque French countryside, the sleepy and charming village of Barbizon became the site of a major revolution in the 1830s where a handful of creative minds came together in a tranquil setting to find radical artistic inspiration in nature.
Dance of the Nymphs by Paul Désiré Trouillebert | M.S. Rau
Led by painters including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
, Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, the Barbizon artists were interested in capturing their surroundings in a naturalistic manner, painting directly from nature and putting the real, unedited forms and colors that appeared before them on canvas. They turned away from the strictures of the Academy and marched toward the untamed Forest of Fontainebleau, searching for true, unmanicured beauty in the richly diverse flora and fauna cultivated in the wooded marshes of the countryside. They found respite and community and soon Barbizon became a sort of Mecca for emerging young artists interested in the en plein air painting style.
Marschlandschaft (Mit Drei Hausern) By Emil Nolde | M.S. Rau
Nature also provided inspiration for famous German Expressionist painter Emil Molde, as seen in his watercolor Marschlandschaft (Mit Drei Hausern). In the work, brilliant, amorphous fields of color suggest the vast, marshy landscape of Nolde’s native Schleswig-Holstein region near the German-Danish border. The artist’s application of paint is powerful and dramatic, conveying with a few brushstrokes the impression of passing storm clouds, allowing light and sky to peek through and illuminate the colors of his landscape. A sense of fluidity and immediacy were of great importance to Nolde. He once said, “I try to avoid all thinking. A vague concept of color and luminosity suffices, and the picture evolves during the act of painting.” The flow and spontaneity of watercolor lent themselves well to Nolde’s creative approach, and he achieved a vibrancy in the medium that is unsurpassed.
The Bible has long been a source of artistic inspiration since the first few centuries. With countless characters, stories and lessons, biblical narratives were perhaps the most frequent source of inspiration for artists
Moses And The Pillar Of Cloud By Lucas Cranach The Elder And Studio | M.S. Rau
Moses and the Pillar of Cloud is a bold and evocative composition that showcases the signature intense color and intricate detail of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s celebrated oeuvre. The remarkable 16th-century oil on panel by Lucas Cranach and his studio captures the narrative moment when Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and encounters God manifested through a large pillar of cloud. Moses stands at the precipice of a bridge and turns back to soldiers helping to lead the group of Israelites who huddle closely together. Cranach depicts Moses with his traditional iconography, rendering the rays of light on his head which came to be interpreted as "horns" in the translation of the Bible. Using his traditional walking staff, Moses gestures toward the pillar, seemingly acknowledging that God will protect the group as they cross the bridge to the other side, leaving exile and entering a promised land.
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Ophelia, 1851 | Tate Modern
Other famous written works, like the plays of Shakespeare, have provided artistic inspiration for artists. Inspired by both the story and his muse Elizabeth Siddal, John Everett Millais' Ophelia captures Shakespeare's tragic heroine as modeled by Malais' beautiful and effusive muse.
Many accounts present Elizabeth Siddal as a sort of damsel in distress, plucked from obscurity to become a Pre-Raphaelite muse. However, in reality, Siddal leveraged her connections with powerful male painters as a means to make her own artworks known in prestigious circles of the art world. In Victorian Britain, only a handful of women could exhibit their fine artworks publicly and women artists were often barred from life drawing classes — unless of course, they were posing in the nude the model.
Siddal’s work as a model for key players like Millais gained her tenuous acceptance and she was able to exhibit paintings and drawings alongside the male Pre-Raphaelites, including at a salon at Russell Place in London in 1857 and also held an exhibition for her paintings at a gallery on London's Charlotte Street. While Siddal is best known as Millais' silent floating muse in his Shakespeare-inspired Ophelia, she worked tirelessly to earn credence as an artist in her own right and sought to be remembered as an individual instead of only in relation to the powerful men around her.
Great Muses in Art History:
While artists have long found art inspiration in people, places, nature and written words, specific people or Muses carry the most lore. Each with their own unique stories, these muses have inspired famous artists over the decades.
Victorine Meurent & Laure
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863-65 | Musée d’Orsay
Perhaps the most recognizable of Édouard Manet’s models, the famous artist was said to have spotted Victorine Meurent making her way through the bustling streets of Paris. Instantly drawn to her enigmatic beauty, Meurent modeled for two of Manet’s most controversial and influential paintings: Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia. Both paintings capture an important shift in Manet’s celebrated oeuvre as they depict everyday people and people typically cast down to lower classes of society with a level of realism and autonomy previously unseen in paintings of nudes. Manet’s enchantment and fascination with Victorine is on full display in his tour-de-force Olympia, one of the most frequently studied and written about works in the entire history of modern art. As she reclines back in a typical nude pose, Manet does not idealize her form or conceal her nudity in an artful way. Rather, his Olympia stares defiantly back with a powerful gaze that undoubtedly reflects the powerful aura of the model Victorine.
While Manet’s Olympia has galvanized scholars from its creation, most only discuss the white female figure’s stare back at an imposing male gaze, and very few analyze the Black female servant simultaneously centered in the composition. We now know her name was Laure, and she too was a frequent model and muse for Manet.
Edouard Manet, Portrait of Laure, 1863 | Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin
Analysis of Laure was a guiding theme of Denise Murrell’s exhibition Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today. Murrell analyzes Olympia as a decidedly bi-figural work adding to growing recent scholarship from art historians including Darcy Grimaldo Grimbsy, Lorraine O’Grady, and Griselda Pollack that reorients analysis to include—and further, to center—the Black female attendant. Murrell traces Manet’s use of Laure as a model in Manet’s paintings from Children in the Tuileries Gardens, to Portrait of Laure, to Olympia. With specific attention to the Portrait of Laure, Murrell asserts that Manet renders Laure as a meaningful subject of an earnest portrait. Despite placing her in a position of servitude in the Olympia painting, Manet’s use of his signature style in that painting as well as his watercolor sketch portrait of Laure shows that he viewed her as an embodied, real, and respected woman, worthy of equal analysis in the painting Olympia.
Madeleine By Pierre-Auguste Renoir | M.S. Rau
Madeleine Bruno was a young French girl from the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer and one of Renoir's favorite models during the later years of his career. Her beauty captivated Renoir and she was featured in Les Baigneuses(1918-1919) — the painting Renoir felt was his magnum opus.
Renoir’s enthrallment with Madeline is on full display in her portrait at M.S. Rau. Here, the young model appears lit from within, with flushed cheeks and rouged lips. Her eyes look towards the distance, beyond the viewer, and the vibrant yellows and reds of her dress and the flower in her dark hair contrast the cooler blues and greens of the background. Exuding a feminine innocence and delicate sensitivity, Renoir’s effusive brushstrokes give the composition a hazy, dreamlike air while maintaining a strong likeness to its subject. Other Renoir compositions of Madeleine Bruno can be found in the permanent collections of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and the Musée de Grenoble in Grenoble, France.
Cecil Beaton Dora Maar behind one of her works, in her studio at 6 rue de Savoie, Paris 1944 Musée Picasso (Paris, France) © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman No. 6, Portrait of Dora Maar (Tête de femme No. 6, portrait de Dora Maar), 1939 | MoMA
Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, Dora Maar was Pablo Picasso’s creative muse. Maar was a gifted photographer, and inspired many of Picasso’s famous paintings including Weeping Woman, Portrait of Dora Maar, and Woman Dressing Her Hair. She was also the only person who was allowed to capture the various stages of Guernica while Picasso was completing this most-famous work. When their relationship became strained, and Picasso met a younger woman, Maar turned to Roman Catholicism, saying: “After Picasso, only God.” However, the pairs creative energy is forever immortalized in the incredible works of art created with Maar at muse and in the photographs Maar created with Picasso’s work as her source of inspiration.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, 1975 | Whitney Museum of American Art
Singer-songwriter Patti Smith and iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe met in New York in the 1960s. They became roommates, lovers, superstars, and each other’s muses. While Mapplethorpe’s often controversial subject matters have remained a fixture in discussions of his work, he is also remembered for his exceptional technical skill as a photographer and unique ability to capture unbridled emotion and the beauty of form in black and white. Smith features in several of Mapplethorpe’s famous photographs, and recently wrote a memoir entitled Just Kids documenting the pair’s fascinating, tumultuous and passionate relationship. The two each sparked creative artistic inspiration in one another and their symbiotic relationship as artist and muse accounts for a well of incredible artistic contributions.
Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera
Marcel Sternberger, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Mexico City (1952). Courtesy of Frida Kahlo Corporation. © Stephan Loewentheil.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are arguably among the most fascinating and inspiring artist couples to have lived. Both extremely talented and successful, the two artists had a passionate and deeply complex relationship. Throughout their careers and relationship, they profoundly impacted each other’s work, serving as each other’s muses. They were often the subject of each other’s work and the source of the most profound joys, heartbreaks and inspiration. The pair are inextricably linked, as demonstrated in Khalo’s Self-Portrait as Tehuana (1943), often referred to as Diego on my mind which showcases the depths of their artistic connection.
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait as Tehuana, 1943 | Credit: Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, DF/DACS 2017
How to find artistic inspiration
Finding artistic inspiration can be a personal and unique process for each artist. Here are some strategies and approaches that may help you discover inspiration for your own creative endeavors:
Explore different art forms: Expose yourself to various art forms such as painting, photography, sculpture, music, literature, visual art, dance, antiques and film. Visit museums, galleries, concerts, or performances to immerse yourself in different creative expressions. Cross-pollination between art forms can spark new ideas and perspectives.
Observe your surroundings: Pay attention to the world around you. Observe the beauty in nature, architecture, people, or everyday objects. Take walks, travel to new places, or simply sit in a café and observe. Notice colors, shapes, textures, patterns and the interplay of light and shadow. Inspiration can often be found in the ordinary and mundane.
Seek inspiration from other artists: Engage with the work of other artists. Visit exhibitions, read books or articles about artists and explore online platforms showcasing artworks. Analyze and study the techniques, concepts, and styles that resonate with you. Engaging in artistic communities, whether online or in person, can also provide opportunities for discussion, feedback and collaboration.
Reflect on personal experiences and emotions: Draw inspiration from your own life experiences, memories and emotions. Explore themes or subjects that have personal significance to you. Reflect on your own journey, relationships, dreams, or challenges. Art can be a powerful way to express and process your thoughts and feelings.
And finally, remember that inspiration can come and go, so be patient and open to the process, especially when you experience a creative block. Embrace the journey of exploration, and allow yourself the freedom to create without the pressure of always seeking inspiration. Trust your instincts, follow your passions and let your creativity flow.