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50 Tragic Facts About History’s Most Scandalous Muses

Mathew Burke

ConThe muses inspired beautiful paintings, alluring sculptures, and heartbreaking songs. They were briefly drawn into the sphere of great artists and then, just as suddenly, gone again. But while the public has forgotten them, history shows that they were people with rich, full, interesting lives of their own. Indeed, the artists were lucky to know them.


Muses Facts

1. X Marks the Spot

She was named Amelie Gautreau, but to the art world, she was known as “Madame X,” the star of a scandalous painting by John Singer Sargent. The painting, which depicted Gautreau in clothing one critic diplomatically called “flagrantly insufficient,” destroyed Sargent’s reputation in Paris and forced him to relocate to London.

2. The Mirror Doesn’t Lie

Sargent had to move to avoid the controversy; but the effects on Gautreau were even more severe. Criticized and harassed in the streets, the former model retreated into obscurity. Supposedly, the now-reclusive Gautreau dealt with the controversy with a chilling demand. She forbade all mirrors from her home. The beautiful woman was now desperate to avoid seeing her own image.

3. Deathly White

Gautreau had been famous for her beauty even before Sargent’s painting. She was most notable for her extremely pale skin—so pale, in fact, that Parisians speculated Gautreau ingested small doses of arsenic to maintain her ghostly complexion.

4. She Was Something Else

Pattie Boyd began modelling in 1962, at the age of eighteen. By decade’s end, she was living the dream of every high school girl in America and England: She was married to a Beatle. Boyd began a relationship with Beatles guitarist George Harrison in 1964; they married in 1966. Harrison wrote several songs for Boyd, including his biggest hit with the Beatles, “Something.”

5. What Will You Do When You Get Lonely?

Harrison’s friend, guitarist Eric Clapton soon fell in love with Boyd himself. He was completely infatuated with her and went to chilling lengths to be close to her, even dating Boyd’s sister as a kind of surrogate. When that didn’t work, Clapton wrote “Layla” as proof of his love for Boyd. “Layla” became a massive hit. In 1974, once Clapton stopped doing heroin, Boyd left Harrison and married Clapton. The marriage was not a happy one, however, and Clapton’s ongoing drinking and womanizing led to a divorce in 1989.

6. Behind the Camera

Boyd wasn’t just the woman behind the songs. Boyd’s modelling naturally led her to take up photography herself and, with plenty of access to rock stars and other celebrities, she soon built up a portfolio of candid portraits of the rich and famous. She was a member of the Royal Photographic Society, but her career was often overshadowed by her famous husbands. It wasn’t until 2005 that was finally given her own exhibit. The exhibit, shown in San Francisco and London, was called Through the Eye of the Muse.

7. Going, Going, Gonne

William Butler Yeats first met Irish nationalist Maude Gonne in 1899 and was immediately smitten. He wrote dozens of poems for her—“Leda and the Swan,” “Among School Children,” “A Man Young and Old” are just a few examples—each using Gonne as the very model of beauty. Yeats proposed to Gonne no fewer than four times; each time, she declined.

8. No Second Coming

After Gonne’s final rejection, in 1916, Yeats finally got the message. He moved on…and proposed to Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. She, too, turned him down.

9. Boyz in the ‘Hood

Elizabeth Siddal, or Lizzie, as she was known, was a favorite model of a group of 19th century British artists called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Strangely for a model, the Pre-Raphaelites praised Lizzie for her “plainness.” Though she was the favorite model and wife of painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Siddal is probably most recognizable as the model for John Everett Millais’ iconic painting Ophelia. Like Ophelia, Siddal’s life was defined by pain.

10. Do Patronize Me

Though they thought of her as “plain,” the Pre-Raphaelites captured Siddal’s beauty again and again. Siddal soon took up the brush herself, painting a self-portrait dramatically different from her depiction by Rossetti and others. The self-portrait so impressed art critic John Ruskin that he became Siddal’s patron, paying her ₤150 per painting (about $25,000 modern US dollars). Siddal was living the dream…but it wouldn’t last for long.

11. Return to Sender

Siddal died in 1862, when she was just 32 years of age. Officially, her cause of death was listed as an overdose of laudanum, but rumors swirled that Rossetti had found a suicide note pinned to her shirt. Devastated, Rossetti buried several of his unpublished poems with Siddal. But a few years later, Rossetti decided he would do anything to get those poems back. In a chilling twist, he had Siddal’s body exhumed just so he could retrieve the poems.

12. Art Thief

According to legend, artist Francis Bacon met George Dyer when Dyer tried to burglarize Bacon’s apartment. That story probably isn’t true, but Bacon was infatuated with the younger Dyer. Dyer was not an art fan. Though Bacon painted him dozens of times, Dyer’s response seldom changed: when asked his opinion at an exhibition, Dyer replied “All that money and I think they’re really horrible.”

13. Highs and Lows

Bacon, the artist, and Dyer, the career criminal, had little in common except their love of alcohol. Their relationship deteriorated as Dyer’s drinking worsened, and Dyer killed himself. The death coincided with the peak of Bacon’s career, a retrospective at Paris’ Grand Palais where Bacon was declared “England’s greatest living artist.” To keep scandal from tainting Bacon’s achievement, Dyer’s suicide was hidden from the press for two days.

14. Paint It Black

Despite the cover-up, Bacon was devastated by Dyer’s death. He spent the next two years painting Dyer again and again. Some of the finest work of Bacon’s career came out of this period, including the “Black Triptychs,” three paintings which imagine the final moments of Dyer’s life.

Muses FactsGetty Images

15. Miss Manhattan

At the turn of the 20th century, Audrey Munson was the model. Known as Miss Manhattan, she began modelling at the age of 17, and before long was the preferred model of artists like Isidore Konti and Charles Dana Gibson. There are no fewer than twelve statues of Audrey Munson in New York City, including the Three Graces which stand in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Astor, Times Square.

16. I Keep Seeing You Everywhere!

Munson reached the peak of her fame in 1915. That year, one of her top clients, Alexander Stirling Caldwell, was named Director of Sculpture for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco. Of 1,500 statues displayed at the exhibition, more than three fifths were based on Munson. One building alone featured 90 statues of the model. Munson was experiencing the highest highs and sadly, she’d come to know the lowest lows. 

Muses Facts

17. Body Double

Munson was able to transition her modelling into a successful acting career. There was just one problem—she couldn’t act. Munson would model for the camera while the actual acting fell to look alike Jane Thomas would do the acting. Despite her lack of acting talent, Munson’s films were big successes at the box office.

18. Hidden Talents

Munson was the first actress to appear nude on screen, in the movie Inspiration.

19. And You Thought Your Landlord Was Bad…

In 1919, Munson’s career was rocked by scandal. The landlord of her boarding house, Walter Wilkins, became infatuated with Munson and, hoping to start a relationship with her, murdered his wife. Wilkins was found guilty and sentenced to death, but hanged himself before the sentence could be carried out. Munson denied having any sort of relationship with Wilkins, but her career never really recovered.

20. Life Imprisonment

Munson spent the next ten years suffering in obscurity. After a suicide attempt, Munson’s mother had her committed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane, where she spent the rest of her life—a heartbreaking 65 years, during which time she received few visitors.

21. A Grave Injustice

Munson died in the asylum in 1996, at the age of 103. She was buried in a family plot in New Haven, New York, without a headstone.

22. The Most Interesting Woman in Paris

Alice Ernestine Prine was known to the world as Kiki de Montparnasse: model, actress, artist, cabaret singer, nightclub owner, Parisian socialite, and muse to Dadaist photographer Man Ray. How interesting was Kiki’s life? Her memoir was banned in the United States for “obscenity.” But, then, what would expect from a woman whose first job, at age 12, was binding copies of the Kama Sutra?

23. Sex and Violins

Kiki began modelling at age 14. She posed for dozens of artists, but became the muse of Man Ray. Ray took hundreds of photographs of Kiki, most notably Ingres’s Violin. The famous image depicts Kiki from behind; with f-holes painted one her back, her curving body forms the shape of a violin.

24. Long Live the Queen

Modelling was just one of Kiki’s many endeavours. She starred in several of Man Ray’s experimental films, including L’Etoile de Mer and Le Retour à la Raison. In the 1920s she bought a nightclub, which she rechristened “Chez Kiki,” and performed there regularly. Kiki even tried her hand at making art of her own—quite successfully, in fact: her 1927 exhibition at the Galerie Sacre du Printemps in Paris completely sold out. At the time, Paris was the artistic centre of the world, and no one was more famous than Kiki, “the Queen of Montparnesse.”

25. A Room of One’s Own

Pablo Picasso was already married to Russian ballerina Olga Khuklova when he met Marie-Thèrèse Walter. Walter was also just 17 years old. Unfazed, Picasso persuaded his art dealer to move Walter into the empty apartment beside his own. Walter and Picasso carried out the affair for years, during which time she inspired a number of his paintings and sculptures, most notably Le Rêve.

26. Catfight

Walter was devoted to Picasso, and he repaid her love with a heartbreaking betrayal. Picasso was also seeing yet another mistress/muse, Dora Maar. The two accidentally met one day when Walter stopped by Picasso’s studio unexpectedly. When they demanded Picasso make a choice, he told them to fight it out between them, at which point the two women began wrestling on the floor of the artist’s studio. An image of the two women fighting appears at the edge of Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica.

27. Set in Stone

Walter and Picasso had a daughter together, Maya. Picasso continued to support the girl, but by 1940, his relationship with Walter had dissolved. Nonetheless, he seemed to carry a torch for Walter for the rest of his life: his headstone is topped with a sculpture of his former lover.

28. Hello, Dalí

Elena Ivanova Diakonova was recovering from tuberculosis when she met the French poet Paul Éluard at a Swiss sanatorium in 1912. Her meeting with Éluard gave her entrée into Europe’s artistic class, and she spent the next several years pursuing a relationship with both Éluard and German painter Max Ernst. On one fateful day, however, she abruptly left both men broken-hearted. That was the day she met her future husband, the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí.

29. A Gala Affair

Diakonova, rechristened “Gala” began acting as Dalí’s business agent and muse. She was the model for countless Dalí works, including The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, Corpus Hypercubus, and Galatea of the Spheres. So important was Gala to Dalí’s work that he began signing her name as well as his own to his paintings.

30. Just Friends

Starting in 1971, American realist Andrew Wyeth painted more than 240 portraits of his neighbor Helga Testorf, many of them nudes. Wyeth and Testorf kept the paintings secret from their spouses—the paintings would not be displayed until 1987. The “Helga Pictures” were a sensation, landing Testorf on the cover of Time, but caused tension in the Wyeth and Testorf households. Despite the intimacy of the paintings, and the secrecy around their creation, both Wyeth and Testorf deny any sort of romantic relationship between them.

31. The Sad Roots of the Bond Girl

Where did Ian Fleming get the idea for all those Bond girls? According to The Times, the glamorous, tough women were based on his own love life—but much like Bond, Fleming never got a happy ending with his Bond Girl. Fleming was deeply in love with Muriel Wright, a wealthy model and athlete. After a long-term relationship, Wright died in an air raid, and sadly, Fleming was the one who identified her lifeless body. Wright was just 36 years old.

32. A Nice Girl

Cleo Odzer was working as a music journalist in New York City when she met Keith Emerson. Emerson was the keyboardist for a pop act called the Nice, and would later become famous as a member of the prog rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Emerson and Odzer were smitten with each other and even got engaged. Things came to an end, however, when Emerson discovered Odzer’s double life.

33. Let’s Talk about Love

Everything changed when Emerson came across a Time magazine article on “supergroupies”—an article which featured a massive photograph of Cleo Odzer. Emerson, apparently unaware of his fiancée’s extracurricular activities, immediately broke off their engagement. But you don’t have to cry for Cleo: she went on to get her PhD in anthropology, and became an important public voice on sexuality and the hippie movement.

34. Miss Olympia

Victorine Meurent was the model for many of Édouard Manet’s paintings, including his most famous pieces, Luncheon in the Grass and Olympia. She also modelled for Edgar Degas and Alfred Stevens. But Meurent wasn’t just a model: she was a gifted artist in her own right. Meurent attended was admitted to the Société des Artistes Français in 1903.

35. The Model Beats the Master

In 1876, Meurent submitted some paintings for exhibition at the prestigious Paris Salon. To her delight, her paintings were accepted, and received positive reviews from critics. Manet had submitted paintings, too, but he was declined.

36. A Blaze of Glory

In addition to her painting and modelling, Meurent played guitar and violin. In fact, Manet first spotted her playing guitar in the street (an image which inspired his painting, The Street Singer). Sadly, after Meurent’s death, everything came crashing down. Her neighbours cleaned out her house and burned her instruments in a massive bonfire. Ouch.

37. Cocktails?

What Meurent had in talent, she lacked in height. She was known around Paris as “La Crevette”— “the Shrimp.”

38. Babysitter’s Club

Pamela des Barres may have been the most prolific groupie of all time: she had relationships with some of the biggest rock stars of the 1960s and 70s, including Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Otis Redding, Jimmy Page and many more. But how, you might ask, does someone get into that dating pool? Well in des Barres’ case, she started as Frank Zappa’s babysitter.

39. Almost Almost Famous

Zappa also encouraged des Barres to continue writing in her journal, something she had been passionate about since high school. Those journals later turned into des Barres’ memoirs, I’m With the Band and Take Another Little Piece of My Heart. Those memoirs later inspired filmmaker Cameron Crowe when writing Almost Famous. Since then, des Barres has embarked on a full-fledged literary career.

Cameron Crowe and Kate Hudson

40. All in the Family

des Barres’ adventures among the rock n roll crowd might have been exciting, but they could be dangerous as well. In a column for Please Kill Me, des Barres recounts that she once had a make-out session with an aspiring musician named Bobby Beausoleil. Beausoleil later turned out to be a member of the notorious Manson Family.

41. Cut from the Cloth

Petrarch didn’t invent the sonnet, but he perfected and popularized it. That’s impressive, because Petrarch wasn’t planning to be a poet. Supposedly, an encounter with a woman named Laura, inspired him to give up his planned career (the priesthood) and devote himself to writing poetry. Many of Petrarch’s early poems are sonnets of unrequited love for this mysterious Laura.

42. The Original Laura

Some historians think Petrarch’s Laura may have been Laura de Noves and if so, Petrarch was head over heels for a very unavailable woman. Not only was Laura de Noves six years younger than Petrarch, she was already married to Count Hugues de Sade. She may have met the poet at the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon, in France, but the relationship never blossomed. Laura de Noves died in 1348 at just 38 years old.

43. Modern Love

Nancy Cunard was the Modernist Era’s most famous muse. Her striking beauty and distinctive style inspired books by Aldous Huxley, poems by Mina Loy, sculptures by Constantin Brancusi, and much more. But her most scandalous act of inspiration is less well known: It’s the spark that she ignited in her ex-partner Henry Crowder, the celebrated jazz musician.

44. End of an Era

After their passionate love fizzled out, Crowder dealt Cunard a brutal betrayal. He wrote and published a scathing memoir about their tumultuous relationship. In it, he ruthlessly lambasted Cunard as an ignorant and angry alcoholic. He also said that not only did Cunard have countless affairs, she flaunted her trysts in Crowder’s face. Ouch.

45. Factory Girl

Edie Sedgwick endured a privileged but abusive childhood, so when she finally received her trust fund on her 21st birthday, she headed to New York City, looking for a fresh start as a model. There, Sedgwick fell in with an eccentric young artist named Andy Warhol. Warhol immediately made Sedgwick the centerpiece of his experimental films, and Sedgwick became the darling of the New York art scene. These glory days wouldn’t last for long. 

46. How Does It Feel?

Among the jetsetters Sedgwick met as part of Warhol’s Factory scene was Bob Dylan. The two shared a brief relationship. Sedgwick is the suggested inspiration for “Just Like a Woman,” “Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

47. Her 15 Minutes

By 1965, Sedgwick had fallen out with Warhol, and explicitly asked him not to show her films anymore. Sedgwick’s attempts to become a mainstream actress met with little success, but this was nothing compared to the suffering that would come mere years later. Sedgwick passed away in 1971 after accidentally mixing medication and alcohol.

48. Things Were Different Back Then

One important person in playwright Tennessee Williams’ life was his sister, Rose. However, in a tragic turn of events, Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was still young. By 1943, she was subjected to a lobotomy (anyone who’s seen that one episode from Bojack Horseman will have an idea of what that entailed). Rose was institutionalized shortly after the brutal operation, much to her brother’s devastation. Years later, Williams based the character of Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie on his beloved sister.

49. Ashore-t Story

On the 4th of July, 1862, three little girls set out in a rowboat to have a picnic with their family friend, Charles Dodgson. One of the girls asked Dodgson to entertain her with a story. What followed would blossom into one of the most beloved novels of all time. Under the pen name Lewis Carroll, Dodgson published the story, calling it Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and dedicating it to the little girl, Alice Liddell.

50. Not Such a Wonderland After All

In an eerie twist, modern scholars now question Dodgson’s connection to young Alice Liddell. A recent BBC documentary revealed that Carroll was an avid photographer…and his preferred subject matter was young girls. In a particularly controversial snapshot, Carroll captured Alice’s sister Lorina in the nude. Yikes.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21


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