The figure of the woman is one of the most recurring subjects in the history of art: from prehistoric fertility statuettes to Greek statues of deities with codified beauty, from portraits of queens and ladies to pictorial works charged with emotionality. But who are these women? What are their names? And what is their story? Often they were part of the painter’s family, wives, mothers, daughters or sisters, or just as often they were lovers or just models. Muses played a key role within the lives of artists, in many cases determining their success, yet forced to remain in the shadows.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we have chosen 5 female figures with special and unique stories related to the work of great artists such as Edward Hopper, Alberto Giacometti, Oskar Kokoschka, Sandro Botticelli and Alberto Modigliani.
Josephine Verstelle Nivison: talented painter who lived unhappily for her husband Edward Hopper
There is only one portrait of Josephine Verstelle Nivison done by realist painter Edward Hopper and it is titled Joe painting, but only from the title do we know that the woman was painting.
When Joe and Edward met she was the one who was an established artist in the New York circle, but after marriage she was excluded from everything. Hopper weighed Verstelle Nivison’s fame against him and therefore extinguished all spark and ambition in her. Early in their relationship, it was she who encouraged her insecure partner to switch from etchings to watercolors, even convincing the Brooklyn Museum to view Hopper’s works. From then on, Joe was ignored and Hopper celebrated.
Hopper suffered lifelong confrontation with his wife so much that he felt the need to control her every choice and action; he forbade her to drive as well as to swim. The artist herself wrote in one of her diaries, “Thank God I had learned to read to write before I became his wife, otherwise he would have tried to deny me even this universal achievement. Why is he so ruthlessly competitive? Why must I always be the one to beat?”
Although he denigrated her and her painting, Joe comforted him in moments of insecurity, helped him find titles, as with the very famous Nighthaws. Joe was the model for all his works, even the more erotic ones, as in the case of Girlie Show, for which at the age of almost sixty she posed completely nude in heels. Hopper did not even leave her the pride of being portrayed as she was; in fact, as in many other works in which she appears (Morning in a City, A Woman in the Sun, and Summertime) her body was distorted by her husband, who elongated her proportions and enlarged her breasts.
Reading advice: Edward Hopper. Intimate Biography written by Gail Levin from the diaries of Joe Nivison. In fact, Joe never rebelled, she suffered all her life, venting her innumerable diaries.
Yvonne Poiraudeau (known as Caroline): the prostitute who was Alberto Giacometti’s last love.
Alberto Giacometti is now fifty-seven years old and has been going through an artistic crisis for the past two years; he is in Paris and here he meets Yvonne Poraudeau, a prostitute in her early twenties known as Caroline. Her beauty and refinement struck the artist, who fell madly in love with her, despite the fact that Giacometti was already married and seeing other mistresses. A passionate and crazy relationship developed between the two; Caroline became his companion in adventures, as well as a model and muse.
His meeting with Yvonne Poriaudeau marked the beginning of Giacometti’s last artistic period, that of the “last portraits”: in fact, the artist painted some 30 portraits of the young woman, including the 1965 one entitled Caroline and preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
Giacometti did not care that she sold her body or even that she stole, rather doing leaps and bounds to get her out of prison. Caroline made the artist relive his youth, taking him through the streets of nocturnal Paris, which Giacometti translated into 150 lithographs featured in the book Paris without End.
Caroline also ended up falling madly in love with Albert, who, despite his love for the young woman, never left his wife Annette. Shortly thereafter, Giacometti fell ill with cancer and on the verge of death drove his wife away, calling Caroline to him, the last to shake his hand.
Reading advice: Franck Maubert’s The Last Model, which faithfully recounts the words of Caroline, Alberto Giacometti’s last love, whom the writer met when, now elderly, she was living in an apartment in Nice
Alma Maria Schindler: Oskar Kokoschka’s Bride of the Wind.
In early twentieth-century Vienna, it is Alma Maria Schindler who is the most beautiful woman in the city. The daughter of a painter and a singer, at only seventeen she became Klimt’s “Judith.” A composer and woman of great culture, after her first marriage she met Klimt’s pupil Oskar Kokoschka at a luncheon.
She was almost 32 and still beautiful; he was just 24, thin, tall, with slightly squinting eyes and a shaved head. Oskar was going through a period of artistic block, and to stimulate him, Alma’s stepfather commissioned the young painter to paint a portrait of his goddaughter. From then on Kokoschka became completely obsessed with the girl. In the period between Alma’s two marriages, the first to the composer Gustav Mahler and the second to Walter Gropius, the two were passionate lovers, but the more time passed, the more Oskar’s jealousy of her grew.
Kokoschka developed a morbid relationship with her, so much so that in just two years he painted Alma in 400 works, including canvases and drawings. The artist wanted to marry her at all costs but her response was, “I will marry you when you paint a real masterpiece.” Oskar took a huge canvas and in 1914 began work on what would become his true masterpiece, The Bride of the Wind. Alma recognized the grandeur of the painting, but she did not keep her word: she did not marry him and disappeared. The last painting depicting her is Woman in Blue (1919) kept at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
Reading advice: Alma Mahler. Or the Art of Being Loved by Francoise Giroud.
Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci: Botticelli’s Venus
Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci was a beautiful Renaissance woman, a canon of beauty and one of the most recognizable figures in art history. She is in fact the muse and subject of Sandro Botticelli’s famous work The Birth of Venus, preserved today at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.
A Genoese by birth, noblewoman and wife of Marco Vespucci, the cousin of the famous Amerigo, her relationship with Botticelli was born thanks to her husband’s family, protectors of the Renaissance painter. Probably Sandro and Simonetta did not have any kind of love relationship indeed, the young woman died tragically at the age of twenty-three and from then on she became an object of veneration by the poets of Florence.
Botticelli was given the task of making her immortal, of transforming her into the ideal woman. The figure of Simonetta can be found in many of his works: from the most famous Birth of Venus to the Demure Venus, becoming the face even of the Virgin Mary in Madonna of the Pomegranate and in Madonna of the Magnificant, as well as the many illustrations of the Divine Comedy dedicated to Beatrice and lesser-known works such as Ideal Portrait of a Lady of 1475.
Reading advice: The Last Rose of April. Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus by Simona Bertocchi, a novel profiling the Florentine muse
Jeanne Héburterne: Amedeo Modigliani’s troubled love.
Amedeo and Jeanne met in 1917 at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. Both artists, she was nineteen, he was thirty-three and still tormented by his previous love with Beatrice Hastings. Jeanne was said to be shy and melancholy but incredibly talented, he on the other hand an alcoholic, drug addict, and tuberculosis patient. The two ended up falling madly in love, however, and lived a three-year-long love affair that led to both of their deaths.
Amedeo’s condition did not make it easy for him to express his feelings for her, so he relied on his paintings. Modigliani painted more than twenty portraits of Jeanne, depicted in every way: half-length, frontal, in profile, wearing a hat or a scarf. One of the distinguishing features of Amedeo Modigliani’s works is the absence of pupils in the women he portrayed; even in the early works depicting Jeanne the pupils are not drawn, except to appear in a second phase, in this regard the painter stated, “When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes.“
They had a daughter whom Modigliani never acknowledged; the painter’s profligate life ended up affecting Jeanne as well, who, after a sudden deterioration of Albert’s health and his subsequent death, committed suicide pregnant and barely 21, jumping from the fifth floor of a building. Buried together in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, her tombstone reads, “Jeanne Hébuterne devoted companion of Amedeo Modigliani until the ultimate sacrifice.“
Reading advice: Back to back. Jeanne Hébuterne without Modigliani by Anna Burgio