John Everett Millais wanted her to be Ophelia; Dante Gabriel Rossetti imagined her as Beatrice: Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal was a blank canvas for the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to imagine whatever they wanted her to be. As a model and muse to these artists, Siddal came to be a central figure in defining the canon.

Siddal was also an eager student, an artist and a poet in her own right, hoping to be valued for more than her youth and beauty. But the pre-Raphaelite Bros failed to see that beyond the long red hair, alabaster skin and gaze of seductive melancholy, was an artist waiting to be awakened.

Depression — worsened by Siddal’s already fragile health, a laudanum addiction, an unfaithful husband and a stillborn child — ended in death. It remains unclear if it was suicide or an accident, much like the Ophelia she embodied and immortalised.


“The concept of 'muse' is an invention to make women passive.”— Adèle Haenel

The relationship between the male artist and the female muse has always been romanticised. But like any patriarchal setup, it didn’t allow for equality between men and women for a long time. At best, the women got to play the passive role of the mythical inspirer of masterpieces. At worst, working with the artist became a terrifying ordeal that ended in penury, suicide, or being locked up in an asylum for “female hysteria”. From Siddal to Camille Claudel to Françoise Gilot, many talented female artists were never allowed to emerge from the shadows of the men, who knew how to take advantage of their enigmatic qualities.


(Above image: Still from Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Lilies Films)

In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma levels the playing field between the artist and the muse. She sets the film in the late 18th century at a time when the status of women in French society slowly began to evolve; so did the role of the muse, who began to take a more active part in the creative process, asserting her identity independent of the artist. Sciamma imagines a story where a female artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of an aristocrat, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to advertise her beauty to a prospective husband. But as Héloïse refuses to be married or painted, her mother requests Marianne to present herself to Héloïse as a companion on her daily stroll. Each day, Marianne records details of her face through glances. The gaze turns into mutual attraction. Art imitates life, before life imitates art.


“Love is creating something together — a language and a piece of art.” — Céline Sciamma

The female gaze in the film, like art itself, boasts a liberating power. Initially Marianne's gaze does not go beyond the anatomical, focusing on Héloïse's neck, the outline of her face, her hair blowing in the wind. It is only when they meet each other's gazes that they're emancipated. Marianne is a woman trying to build a career and legacy in a profession that had previously been limited to men. She cannot even sign her portraits with her name and must use her father's. Héloïse is a prisoner in her own home, and marriage is merely a relocation. So, they become each other's lifelines, as the acts of gazing and being gazed at lead not only to love, but salvation. It's as if they're communicating a whole language of words and feelings by merely looking.

In a Bustle column, Jill Gutowitz expands on the power of the gaze in lesbian cinema. She writes, “The way women express love and desire is typically quieter. Take the shame we feel as a result of widespread homophobia and mix it with the shame all women have been made to have about our sexual desires, and you’ve got a shame casserole. So the way we communicate desire to other women is by staring at them silently, then walking away, ultimately never speaking. Glancing is our mating call.”

Sciamma films these gazes in long sequences akin to a tableaux vivant, where everything stops and we only hear the distant sounds of waves crashing on the beach, the flames crackling in the fireplace, and the wind rushing through the trees. Her palette is filled with red, green and blue, as if their love was blessed by the tall grass and the sea, as if nature took a stand against culture — the norms and traditions formulated by men to exert dominance over women.

The film also updates the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a way that perfectly fits into its story of impossible love. The maid Sophie believes Orpheus was foolish for ignoring Hades’ instructions when he knew he would lose Eurydice forever if he looked back. Marianne believes he makes the poet’s choice over the lover’s to preserve his memory of her. Héloïse suggests perhaps Eurydice asked him to turn around to become an active participant in the story, rather than a passive observer. This mirrors Sciamma’s idea about the artist and muse being equal collaborators in the creation of art.

Portrait of a lady on fire 5 (c)Lilies Films

(Above image: Still from Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Lilies Films)


“We consistently worked towards this equality, creating that in love, but also in art, where the figure of the artist and that of the muse are still so strong. I hear a lot about the muse, which is normal, and it is quite a beautiful word. But for me, it hides the reality of collaboration in the history of art. We see it today, with the rehabilitation of those women, such as Dora Maar, who was Picasso’s muse but also a great surrealist photographer. All muses were crucial collaborators.” — Céline Sciamma

In Greek mythology, the Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory). Each embodied a specific art, and sparked inspiration among artists. Muses were goddesses before men like Picasso turned them into mistresses. Women have since been treated as objects to be dismembered, disrobed and displayed according to male desires. Often young, they were hired to instil in artists the desire to create — or instil desire itself. But when boundaries are crossed and both aren't clear about where the relationship begins and ends, history has proven such collaborations are inherently tragic. When it comes to artists who shared a troubled history with their muses, two films come to mind: Camille Claudel (1988) and Surviving Picasso (1996).

The work of Camille Claudel has always been overshadowed by Auguste Rodin. Bruno Nuytten's film chronicles what starts off as a reciprocal fascination between the two, to its miserable end. In between, Claudel (Isabelle Adjani) and Rodin (Gérard Depardieu) shared a fruitful muse-mentor relationship where she was recognised for her own talent as a sculptor. Their turbulent love affair however ended with Claudel being locked up in a psychiatric hospital for the last 30 years of her life. This period of intense desolation was also recounted in Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915, where Juliette Binoche portrays the disturbed sculptor.

Olga Khokhlova, Jacqueline Roque, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot — all helped Picasso become the artist he is at the cost of their own careers, sanity and lives. Surviving Picasso sees the man through Gilot's eyes as she struggles to accept his infidelities amid all his mood swings and incessant whims. Yet, they all hold him in such high esteem, as Dora Maar says: “Without him, there is nothing. After Picasso, only God.”

In the absence of men, the male heterosexual gaze and their Madonna-Whore complex, Portrait reveals the asymmetry of power not only between artist and muse, but also, between men and women. Sciamma thus imagines a synthesis of art and pleasure which is liberating, not restraining. Marianne’s love affair with Héloïse helps her develop her own style, and lose her academic inhibitions.

Portrait of a lady on fire 4 (c)Lilies Films

(Above image: Still from Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire | Lilies Films)


“At first I could not meet his eyes. When I did it was like sitting close to a fire that suddenly blazes up. Instead I studied his firm chin, his thin lips...I forced my gaze up to his eyes. Again I felt as if I were burning, but I endured it — he wanted me to. Soon it became easier to keep my eyes on his. He looked at me as if he were not seeing me, but someone else, or something else — as if he were looking at a painting. He is looking at the light that falls on my face, I thought, not at my face itself. That is the difference.” —Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring)

To really find a story where a muse tries to assert her independence from her male artist, we must turn to Tracy Chevalier’s fictional portrait of the model for Johannes Vermeer's painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The novel, which was also adapted into a film by Peter Webber with Scarlett Johansson playing the titular character, recounts the story of Griet, who has been hired as a maid in the Vermeer household. When she showcases an understanding of the harmony of colours, shapes and lighting in paintings, he takes her on as an assistant before mentoring her. Like Marianne in Portrait, he secretly even begins to paint a portrait of her for a wealthy admirer.

By telling the story from Griet's perspective, Barbara Eichhammer notes how Chevalier gives art history a feminist revision. "The novel re-negotiates the well-known myth of the male artist and his female muse. Social circumstances led to a gender-specific dichotomy of the art world: the male artistic genius versus his female muse, the autonomous subject of the artist and his painted object. The first-person narrative, however, lends his female muse an authentic voice and perspective, which was oftentimes silenced, repressed or excluded from art history. Griet is no longer just a male object of the artist’s gaze, which a painter tries to fix on canvas, but a narrating subject. The novel depicts her subjective point of view as model, as artistic talent and muse."

Similarly, Sciamma lets you imagine a world where perhaps Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and Marie Antoinette could have had an affair, akin to Marianne and Héloïse. But when she was asked if one was possibly more passive than the other, Sciamma joked, “No, everyone is a top.” Sciamma seems to suggest an accurate representation can only be realised through a consensual collaboration defined by equality, like in the shared human experience of love. Because in art, the gaze is unidirectional; when combined with love, it goes both ways.

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