Lee Siegel has a wonderful piece in today's WSJ on the history and decline of the muse in art. "Poets stopped invoking the muse centuries ago — eventually turning instead to caffeine, alcohol and amphetamines — but painters, musicians and even choreographers have celebrated their actual female inspirers in their work up until recent times," he writes.
The role of the muse was to imbue the artist with creative vision; that is, to serve as something more than pure "exemplar[s] of style" — which is how he sees today's couture model. I suspect there are fashion designers who would disagree with this contention. My only quibble, and it's not really one at all, is that there's no mention of Rubens and his wife Helena Fourment, inarguably one of the great muses in art history. Rubens married her when she was just 16 and he 53, and they had 5 children together, including one conceived just a month before his death; he was nothing if not ardent.
At their wedding, his brother celebrated his fine catch. "He now owns the living image of Helen of Flanders, who is far more beautiful than her of Troy....The beauty of her shape is surpassed by the charm of her nature, her spotless simplicity, her innocence, and her modesty." Rubens painted her endlessly, both as herself and as any number of mythological figures; sometimes she appears numerous times in a single painting. In his most famous portrait of her (above), she appears as Venus in a fur wrap. Hot stuff.