According to the ancient Greeks, the muses were nine daughters of Zeus who lived on Mount Olympus and entertained the other gods with their music and dancing. On occasion they would breathe their divine inspiration into a human, allowing him to achieve otherworldly success in the arts.
Even if no one believes in these women anymore, the idea of them is still terribly useful. Having a bad day in the studio? Blame the muses!
This topic was on my mind the other day when I came across the following painting by Ferdinand Hodler, which was recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When I first saw the image I assumed the women at the top of the canvas were muses. It looked (at first glance) like there were nine of them, and they seemed to be offering the shepherd boy inspiration in the form of a dream.
Then I counted the women and found only eight. Why not nine?
The reality is that Hodler probably had multiple reasons for including these women in the painting. Apparently he had gained some notoriety previous to making this painting for several other paintings which were deemed too erotic and blocked from display. This painting may have been Hodler's comeback. In other words, he may have wanted a reason to include a number of naked women in the piece, and it's only incidental that they are reminiscent of the nine muses.
Be that as it may, there are still some who interpret the women as conduits of divine inspiration, and it's almost certainly fair to consider them muse-like, even if there are a mere eight. What's interesting to me as an artist is the relationship between the shepherd receiving the vision and the ethereal women offering it to him. He seems to have abandoned his own objectives and allowed the vision to speak to him. With his face (and thus his identity) masked by his hand, he has taken his self out of the equation and let the rhythm of the dancing women come over him.
Perhaps most artists today just use the idea of the muse not showing up as an elegant excuse for not working. But even in the absence of nine singing sisters in the sky, there's still something to this idea of listening, of letting go of our egos and our desire for control and accepting that many of our best ideas come from outside of ourselves. Whether inspired by nature, by the Holy Spirit (who Milton called upon at the beginning of Paradise Lost), or by one's own materials, part of the work of the artist is being willing to listen while we work.