The Muse at Her Easel

Family Group, 1980; painting by Celia Paul
Celia Paul/Victoria Miro, London and Venice
Celia Paul: Family Group, 1980

The word museography properly refers to the systematic description of objects in museums, but it might also do for the culture and ideology surrounding that dusty old figure of legend, the artist’s “muse.” If her aura is fading now, anyone educated during the twentieth century remembers when she played no small part in our curricula, both formal and informal. (The male muse, back then, existed only in the homosexual realm.) To avoid her, you had to spend a lot of time in libraries seeking evidence of her opposite: not the sitter but the painter; not the character but the author; not the song but the singer. And a few women did appear to have avoided the state of muse-dom: Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Patti Smith. In fact, such women could be said to have acquired muses themselves, or to have been involved in a mutually beneficial muse-ology with other artists (Vita Sackville-West, Alice B. Toklas, Langston Hughes, Robert Mapplethorpe). But it was slim pickings.

Meanwhile, in the annals of museography, you could discover a celebrated parade of handmaids to the genii, “legendary beauties,” ladies with salons, chic ladies, witty ladies, ladies with inspiring ankles, faces, breasts, voices, clothes, attitudes, houses, and inheritances; women whose brilliant conversation had been entombed in various novels; women whose personal style had prompted whole fashion houses into production; women whose tenure as girlfriend or wife usefully demarcated the various artistic “periods” of the male artists with whom they’d been involved, even when those women were also, themselves, artists. The Yoko Years. The Decade of Dora. Accounts of the muse–artist relation were anchored in the idea of male cultural production as a special category, one with particular needs—usually sexual—that the muse had been there to fulfill, perhaps even to the point of exploitation, but without whom we would have missed the opportunity to enjoy this or that beloved cultural artifact. The art wants what the art wants. Revisionary biographies of overlooked women—which began to appear with some regularity in the Eighties—were off-putting in a different way (at least to me). Unhinged in tone, by turns furious, defensive, melancholy, and tragic, their very intensity kept the muse in her place, orbiting the great man.

Celia Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, is a different animal altogether. Lucian Freud, whose muse and lover she was, is rendered here—and acutely—but as Paul puts it, with typical simplicity and clarity, “Lucian…is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.” Her story is striking. It is not, as has been assumed, the tale of a muse who later became a painter, but an account of a painter who, for ten years of her early life, found herself mistaken for a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.