The Muses (Greek Μοῦσαι Mousai) are the daughters of Mnemosyne, fathered by Zeus over a succession of nine nights which he spent with their mother. Their origin is doubted by sources other than Hesiod, though: some claim their parents were Ouranos and Gaia, for instance. Generally accepted as being nine in number, they are most usually named Kleio, Euterpe, Thaleia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania, and Kalliope. Occasionally they are reduced in number, most usually to three, and have a long history of appearing in visual art.
Calliope (Kalliope) is the Muse of epic poetry, and is shown with a stylus and tablet or a lyre. Clio (Kleio) is the Muse of history, and shown with scrolls or books. Erato is the Muse of love poetry, and holds or plays a cithara, a type of lyre. Euterpe is the Muse of music and lyric poetry, so plays a flute-like aulos. Melpomene is the muse of tragedy, and usually has the mask characteristic of the genre. Polyhymnia (Polymnia) is the Muse of hymns, and is associated with grapes and agriculture. Terpsichore is the Muse of dance, and usually appears with a lyre. Thalia (Thaleia) is the Muse of comedy, and has a comic mask or a shepherd’s crook. Finally, Urania (Ourania) if the Muse of astronomy, and is associated with a globe or compass.
Some of the oldest ‘modern’ paintings of the Muses show them together with the god Apollo on Mount Parnassus.
Andrea Mantegna’s painting of Mars and Venus, known better as Parnassus (1496-97) was commissioned by Isabella d’Este. This refers to the classical myth of the affair between Mars and Venus, the latter being married to Vulcan, who caught them in bed together and cast a fine net around them for the other gods to come and mock their adultery. The lovers are shown standing together on a flat-topped rock arch, as the Muses dance below. To the left of Mars’ feet is Venus’ child Cupid who is aiming his blowpipe at Vulcan’s genitals, as he works at his forge in the cave at the left. At the right is Mercury, messenger of the gods, with his caduceus and Pegasus the winged horse. At the far left is Apollo making music for the Muses on his lyre.
Parnassus is probably the last completed of Raphael’s three great frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican Palace, by 1511 according to an inscription below the window. At its centre is the god Apollo, who is bowing a string instrument and looking upward for inspiration. Surrounding him are the full set of nine Muses, who are mostly not identifiable as individuals.
In 1578, perhaps extending into the following year, Tintoretto painted six mythological works, in a break from his long series of religious scenes and portraits. The first of these was probably the Nine Muses for the Palazzo Ducale not in Venice, but in Mantua, and now in the Royal Collection of the UK. This is unusually inscribed at the lower left corner. The vanishing point in its sky contains another woman’s head, which is probably that of their mother, Mnemosyne, who has the appearance of a mandorla from a religious work.
Lavinia Fontana’s Apollo and the Muses (1598-1600) is unusual for setting the Parnassian motif at night, as an al fresco music concert complete with Pegasus and (at the top left) a flying nude. The explanation for this lies in it having originally been the painted panel cover of a spinet. It was later removed from the instrument, the upper right added, and was put on display above a door.
Anton Raphael Mengs’ Parnassus is a highly-finished sketch for the fresco shown below, which he painted in about 1760. Standing in the centre is Apollo, complete with his lyre and laurel wreaths, used to crown those who became accomplished thanks to the Muses.
To the left of Apollo is Mnemosyne, with a dark blue skirt, who is pointing towards a small spring in front of Apollo’s feet. The other women are the Muses, each accompanied by their attribute to aid identification.
The puzzling figure is lurking in the shadows behind Apollo’s legs: possibly a river god, responsible for the origin of the water. There is also an Orphic tradition in which the River Mnemosyne is the source of water to bring inspiration, and this is perhaps an allusion to that obscure sub-narrative.
Gustave Moreau painted the Muses in several works, the earliest of which is Apollo and the Nine Muses from 1856. Apollo, a young and surprisingly androgynous figure, sits in the foreground, his distinctive lyre part-hidden under his right foot. To the right of him is a wild rose, with both white flowers and red hips. The Muses cluster on a small mound behind that, equipped for and engaged in their respective arts. Moreau has not so much composed them into position as compressed them into a mass, in which it’s difficult to distinguish even heads.
Over a decade later, Moreau made the Muses and their encouragement of the arts the theme of another painting. He started work on The Muses Leave Apollo, their Father, in Order to go Forth and Enlighten the World by 1868, but abandoned it shortly afterwards. In 1882, he took it up again, had its canvas enlarged, and extended the painting before abandoning it again.
Its narrative is extremely simple, and related in its title: the Muses are seen leaving Apollo (son of Zeus their father) to bring inspiration to the human world. Judging by the lines showing where the canvas was extended, this originally consisted of little more than Zeus, sat on his throne, with the Muses close-packed in front of him.
The painting is now quite ornate, with extensive decorative elements in the clothing, and even covering the figure of Zeus, but it is not clear how much of that was added after the canvas had been extended.
The Muses also appear in a couple of well-known stories in Classical mythology.
Joos de Momper’s splendid Helicon or Minerva’s Visit to the Muses (c 1610) is one of the most complete accounts of a story taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Pegasus rears on his wings at the top of a new spring created by his hooves, which cascades down a small cliff at the right. Minerva – suitably helmeted, holding her spear in her left hand, and with her shield bearing the image of Medusa’s head (an Aegis substitute) – is at the left. Between them are the nine Muses, each busily engaged in exercising their arts, with a mischievous putto fiddling with the back of the organ.
Wheeling above the rugged landscape of Helicon are slightly more than nine birds, some of which bear the distinctive black and white markings of magpies. Those are the nine Pierides sisters who challenged the Muses, and were transformed into magpies as their punishment for losing.
Jacques Stella’s Minerva and the Muses (c 1640-45) is a slightly later, but almost as complete, account of the same myth. We are clearly higher up the slopes of Mount Helicon, and in the distance on the left is Pegasus, being mobbed by putti. Minerva is on the right, armed with her spear and Aegis-shield. Several of the nine Muses are accompanied by appropriate attributes, and two are engaged in conversation with Minerva. There’s no sign of the Pierides, though.
Hendrick van Balen’s Minerva and the Nine Muses (c 1610) also shows all the key figures. The nine Muses are seated, forming a small orchestra with contemporary rather than classical instruments. Minerva, at the left, is being engaged by a tenth woman, whose identity isn’t clear. In the far distance, just beyond a waterfall (the new spring), Pegasus is about to take off from a high cliff. Above there are two magpies, implying the imminent arrival of the Pierides.
The second myth is another contest, this time between Apollo and the satyr Marsyas, with its gruesome outcome in which the satyr is flayed alive.
Cornelius van Poelenburgh takes us into the myth itself, showing The Musical Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (1630). Marsyas is to the right of centre, with two other satyrs behind him. Apollo, wearing a crown of laurels both as his attribute and possibly an indication of his victory in the contest, is holding forth from a rocky throne to the right.
At the left are the Muses, the jury for the contest, with another couple of satyrs. There is also a mystery couple, seen walking away in the distance to the left of Marsyas’ right leg, although we can only speculate who they might be.
We are also left wondering whether the contest is just about to take place, or the jury’s verdict has just been announced and Apollo is telling Marsyas of his fate. Given that Apollo appears to be reasoning out loud, I’d like to think that he is here explaining the rules beforehand.
Tiepolo’s Apollo and Marsyas (1720-22) takes the same musical contest as its theme. It is easy here to mistake the figure sat on the rock throne as being Apollo, but he is actually the youth at the left, bearing his lyre, wearing a wreath of laurel, and given a gentle divine halo.
Thus the figure apparently wearing a gold crown sat in a dominant position must be Marsyas, clutching a flute (of sorts, not really an aulos here) in his right hand. To the right are some of the Muses, one of whom covers her eyes in despair. She knows what Apollo’s pointing arm is about to inflict on the usurper Marsyas.
More recently the Muses have been included in paintings referring to the arts and classics more generally.
Moreau’s Hesiod and the Muses from 1860 is probably the first of his ‘new’ history paintings, and the first of a series of works in which he shows Hesiod, generally considered to be the first written poet in the Western tradition to exist as a real person, and to play an active role in his poetry. Hesiod is shown to the left of centre, as a young man holding a laurel staff in his right hand. Once again the Muses are squeezed in together so that they are hard to distinguish, although I count nine of them. One is on her knee, presenting Hesiod with a laurel wreath.
There are four swans on the ground, and one in flight above Hesiod, a winged Cupid sat on the left wing of Pegasus, and a brilliant white star directly above the winged horse. However, the Cupid and Pegasus were only added in about 1883, when the canvas was extended.
The grandest of the Naturalist Édouard Debat-Ponsan’s paintings which I have been able to find is his wonderful depiction of the Muses in The Crown of Toulouse (1894) in the Salle des Illustres (Room of the Illustrious) in Toulouse’s Capitol building. This is perhaps the height of ‘municipal art’ in the Third Republic, and co-opts the Muses in support of the government of the day.