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The self-representing muse: Autobiographical productions of women in artistic partnerships

Ashley Lawson, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Despite critical deconstructions of the myth of the "solitary genius" as the dominant model of artistic creation, traditional conceptions of the muse figure have remained relatively stable for thousands of years. According to this model, the woman who plays the muse "inspires" the artist, but she does not collaborate in the creation of the final product; she plays a supporting role in the narrative of artistic creation, but she is not creative in her own right. She is a cipher, a vessel purposed solely for the transmission of the male artist's creative vision. My dissertation argues that this metaphor for the artistic process obscures and limits the multitude of dynamics that provoke creativity and, most importantly, diminishes the role that innumerable historical women have played in making art throughout history. I offer the term "self-representing muse" to disrupt the active/passive, creative/non-creative binaries that too often fall along gender lines in depictions of artistic couples. By examining the autobiographical productions of women who have been labeled as muses, I aim to depict a more complicated, diverse, and flexible model of creation and inspiration that grants each female participant the full respect of calling her an artist in her own right. Focusing specifically on the Modernist period, the historical era between and during the World Wars when gender roles underwent significant changes and afforded women more freedom within the artistic circles in Europe and the United States, I analyze the work of four women: H.D., Zelda Fitzgerald, Alice B. Toklas, and Lee Miller. Each, I argue, depicts a critical version of "musedom" (the function and experience of playing the muse) and artistic partnership that seeks to de-romanticize the traditional narrative and expose the oppressive nature of the passive muse construction. Yet rather than discard the trope all together, all four women instead elevate the importance of the muse figure's will and intellect in order to imbue a greater significance in that role. Musedom is, then, a part of the process of attaining an artistic identity for women, not an end goal in itself.

Subject Area

Literature|Womens studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Lawson, Ashley, "The self-representing muse: Autobiographical productions of women in artistic partnerships" (2014). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3618277.