With George Frederic Watts’ portrait of 1870s socialite Lillie Langtry currently exhibiting in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition, we take a look at what it means to be a muse then and now.

Lillie Langtry was the quintessential muse. A British-American actress, producer and socialite, she captivated 1870s London with her charm, talent and good looks. Not only did she inspire writers like Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she also sat for several established painters including Frank Miles, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, William Powell Frith and George Frederic Watts, who was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in the 1800s. Both Frank Miles and his friend Oscar Wilde idolised Langtry. “I with my pencil and Oscar with his pen will make you the most famous beauty of the age,” Miles told her.

"The Dean's Daughter [Lily Langtry]" (1879-80) by George Frederic Watts RP (1817-1904), Oil on canvas – NFS

Many women throughout art history have occupied the role of the muse. Emilie Louise Flöge appears throughout Gustav Klimt’s work, most famously in his 1908 magnum opus ‘The Kiss’. While Pablo Picasso, a notorious womanizer, had several muses throughout his career, including Dora Maar, a surrealist photographer and left-wing activist who is said to have influenced him to paint ‘Guernica’.

As glamorous as the role of the muse might seem on the surface, it has also been a tool of female oppression. Women have been largely written out of art history, often finding themselves relegated to the role of the muse, despite being talented creators in their own right. Even successful artists, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, who managed to break through were said to have done so because of the men in their lives. While it was seen as daring for Frida Kahlo to say, “I am my own muse.”

Historically, visual representations of women have been created predominantly by and for men. “Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at,” said John Berger in his groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing (1972). Now known as “the male gaze”, this idea was originally theorised by Laura Mulvey in her landmark 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ which laid claim to the fact that images of women are largely created to please a male viewer, positioning them as an “object” of heterosexual male desire.

Since the rise of the feminist movement, women have successfully challenged sexism in the art world and broken down barriers. Female artists like Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were once scandalised and shunned as much as they are now celebrated and immortalised. And yet, gender imbalances remain steadfast. In 1989, the Guerilla Girls drew attention to the fact that less than 5% of the works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) were by female artists, while 85% of the nudes were female. Twenty years later, things have improved, but only marginally. In their latest 2015 campaign, the Guerilla Girls revealed that galleries that once showed 10% are only up to 20%, while New York museums that previously gave no women artists a solo exhibition, gave just one single woman a solo show in 2015.

"Nude with a Book" by Anthony Connolly RP, Oil, 140 x 140 cm, NFS

Furthermore, sexualised images of women are still ubiquitous across media and society and thus an image of a naked female body remains “nothing but controversial” as academic and activist Dr. Victoria Bateman wrote in the Guardian. Whether it is Instagram’s selective banning of female anatomy parts (but not men's) or petitions against galleries (including the MET and Manchester Art Gallery) to remove “voyeuristic” works, the female nude remains a point of contention. “In modern society, a naked woman is associated with one thing alone: sex,” states Bateman. “This single-minded way of looking at nudity isn’t healthy – certainly not for women.”

A selection of works at this year’s Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition are challenging these notions. A nude portrait of Dr. Bateman by Anthony Connolly RP depicts the academic reclined in a relaxed pose reading. Bateman insists that, while it was painted by a man, it was she who initiated and commissioned the piece, and so, "the model took charge." With this work, Bateman aims to demonstrate that a nude woman can also be an intelligent one, not simply a sexual object. “It is intellectually elitist, hypocritical and unfair that women who monetise their brains are celebrated and looked up to, whilst women who do the same with their bodies are denigrated and spoken down to.” Bateman argues. “Feminism cannot seek to achieve equality for only one group of women.”

This is the second time that Bateman’s portrait has been exhibited at Mall Galleries. In 2014, she debuted a similar nude portrait by the same artist, which was met with much controversy. Since then, she has continued to carry out naked protests throughout the media, “to challenge the way women are judged, to fight for greater bodily autonomy for women (from birth control rights), and to protest Brexit.”

'Untitled (Portrait of My Girlfriend) by Sarah Jane Moon, Oil, 154 x 114 cm, £5,600

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Sarah Jane Moon’s portrait of her girlfriend is an ode to female power. This piece is part of an ongoing investigation by the artist to paint the female nude, “a genre loaded with patriarchal associations,” through a queer lens and in a way that is “commanding, self-possessed and unapologetic.” The subject is topless, but deliberately dressed in jeans – a traditionally masculine material – provoking the question, “is she half undressed or half dressed?” The pose was chosen to convey “strength and openness” and taken from a low vantage point to place the viewer in a less dominant position. Moon explains that the portrait is also a depiction of a same-sex relationship: “The attributes I find attractive in her and wanted to celebrate are strength, steadiness and openness rather than qualities that might have traditionally been associated with feminine beauty such as being passive, meek & delicate.”

In painting ‘Alicia’, one of Hannah Murray’s main concerns was challenging the voyeuristic potential within such imagery. “I strive for my subject to confront the viewer with a raw honesty and allow them to reflect on their feelings towards the female form, revealing flesh more as a matter of fact than an eroticised fantasy,” says Murray.

'Alicia' by Hannah Murray, Oil, 50 x 30 cm, £5,000

One of the most striking paintings in this year’s exhibition is a self-portrait by cancer survivor Leslie Watts in which the artist depicts herself post-mastectomy, bandaged with one breast. “Painting myself in this stance was meant to show that I still owned my body, despite the fact that it had broken down,” Leslie explains. “This is all I am: my body and my paintbrush. I have other scars too: Caesarean sections, mole excisions.” Cancer is a traumatic experience for the mind as much as the body, and yet the artist appears comfortable in her own skin. The cone highlights Watts's vulnerability, but her expression reveals that she is not owned by it. “It could be merely sad, but I decided to wear the veterinary collar to show that I could still laugh about it.”

This week, Facebook removed an image of Watts’ painting from our page deeming it inappropriate. Watts finds it bizarre that anyone would find this portrait in any way carnal: “If anyone looked at this and found it sexually provocative, I’d be amazed. I’m a post-menopausal woman with one breast. This is not about anything except dealing with a scary event in a very personal way: please take a good look. This is my reality.”

In the midst of #MeToo and a surging fourth wave of feminism, the idea of the muse is one that is being called into question. Is there such a thing as a “quintessential muse”? Who gets to be a muse in the 21st century? Join us for a panel discussion on Saturday, 18 May in which we will discuss these questions and much more. 

Lillie Langtry, Model and Muse will take place at 2pm on 18 May in the Main Gallery. 

'Self-Portrait with Tarnished Jug' by Leslie Watts, Egg tempera, 66 x 46 cm – NFS