Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Power of the Muse

“Each of the Arts whose office is to refine, purify, adorn, embellish and grace life is under the patronage of a muse,” Eliza Farnham. These words, spoken by the late novelist and feminist, are just as relevant today as they were two centuries ago. Despite the 21st century’s cultural shift towards homogeneity and ubiquitousness , there is a segment of society that remains increasingly individualistic.

In my opinion, many of today’s top tastemakers, who are fashion and interior designers, comprise this group. These 21st century talents, who include Karl Lagerfeld and Nicky Haslam, draw inspiration from muses. This reliance upon muses is nothing new, of course. As we begin a new decade, I thought it would be fun to look back on some of the most famed muses in the art and interior design worlds of the mid-twentieth century. Amazingly, many of these talents were connected in the chaotic cosmos that is creativity.

(Lady Amanda Harlech, Karl Lagerfeld's long time muse. Photo by Francois Halard for Vogue.)

(Karl Lagerfeld standing in Chanel's famed mirrored staircase. Photo Karl Lagerfeld/Chanel.)

According to Life magazine, Picasso was no stranger to the benefits of having a muse. Throughout his career a coterie of women, all possessing their own brand of beauty, inspired him. He met one of these women, Francoise Gilot, at a Paris café when she was just 21 and he was 40 years her senior. The artist was instantly smitten with the young Gilot who was an artist and writer. He doggedly pursued her and it took him eight months before he convinced her to pose for a nude portrait. Their union would be of much benefit to Picasso.

(Francoise and Picasso enjoy a playful moment on the beach. Photo by Robert Capa for Paris Match.)

Francoise’s youthful vigor inspired Picasso to create works that were intensely optimistic and that focused on the innocent beauty of life. His subject matter from this joie de vivre period included love and children.

He was so inspired by Francoise’s beauty that he once painted eleven portraits of her in just two short days. In these various paintings, Picasso reimagined her countenance as a flower and a sun. The rays that emanated from the latter subject represented Gilot as a source of Picasso’s light.

(La Femme Fleur," 1946.)

The relationship produced two children, Claude and Paloma. Picasso’s youngest daughter grew up to become a fashion and jewelry designer. Her incredibly chic line of jewelry is sold at Tiffany’s.

Sadly, the happy times that the family shared came to an end. Picasso’s relationship with Francoise was one that was tightly controlled. In a sharp contrast to the themes of love that emerged from his work during their romance, Picasso demanded that nearly every aspect of their life be tightly constrained. At the beginning of their love affair, he demanded that they see each other as seldom as possible and that she use very few words when speaking to him. Picasso instituted these rules in an effort to prolong the love affair. This rigidity from a passionate artist seems odd doesn’t it?

(Picasso at work in his studio,c. 1915. Photographer unknown.)

After more than seven years, Francoise left Picasso as she said she was “tired of living with a historical monument.” By the time their relationship had ended, nearly four thousand miles away, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, legendary style icon, Babe Paley, was ensconced within the glamorous confines of her St. Regis apartment. In a strange coincidence, Babe’s husband, William S. Paley, the founder of CBS, collected Picasso’s works and photographed the artist in Cap d’Antibes.

The inestimable Babe Paley hired society decorator Billy Baldwin to transform the sitting room with his legendary, uptown brand of panache and swank style. (In my research, I wasn’t able to discover if Baldwin decorated more than just the Paley’s sitting room. Maybe a reader knows if Baldwin designed more rooms in the couple’s apartment?) Billy draped the walls of the sitting room with a chic, paisley cotton print. As Baldwin said in Billy Baldwin Decorates, “Draping the walls with fabric gives instant warmth against the chill of a dreary city.” The shirred fabric created the perfect backdrop for the Paley’s phenomenal collection of fine antiques.

(A close up view of the paisley,cotton walls in the Paley's sitting room. Photo by Horst.)

In addition to hiring Baldwin, the Paley’s procured the design services of the venerable Parish Hadley firm. For passionate lovers of interior design, the apartment is a pantheon dedicated to the design gods, Sister Parish and Albert Hadley, who reigned supreme during the mid-twentieth century.

(Another view of the sumptuous sitting room as appears in Parish Hadley. Photo by John Hall.)

In my opinion, the most stunning feature of the space was the living room’s famed, taxicab yellow walls. While reading Albert’s reminisces in Adam Lewis’ Albert Hadley, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the suggestion for the wall color was Sister’s. She often favored bolder colors than did the classically trained Hadley. Initially, Albert and Babe had agreed on an ivory white but Sister’s choice was quickly chosen as Mr. Paley expressed an immediate interest in the color. I wonder if Sister wasn’t inspired by the many cabs, that wore slick coats of yellow, on the streets below the St. Regis.

(The drawing room's paneling was inspired by a design from the Hotel Carnavalet in Paris. Photo by William P. Steele.)

The walls, which developed a luster from the application of five different coats of paint, provided the perfect backdrop for the Paley’s collection of important artwork. According to Grace Glueck of the New York Times, one of the most important pieces in the Paley collection was Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse. The painting greeted guests as they entered the apartment. The work was purchased by William Paley in 1936 from the art dealer Justin Thannhauser. Today, the painting, bequeathed by Paley upon his death in 1990, hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Paley’s timeless and elegant apartment served as the perfect stage set against which they entertained artists, writers and other members of New York’s cognoscenti. For one member of this group, Truman Capote, Babe was a source of continual fascination and ultimately became his muse.

Like Picasso, Capote surrounded himself with fascinating women. According to George Plimpton in Truman Capote, Babe’s tremendous beauty, charm and grace led Truman to refer to her as one of his “swans”. The other members of the exclusive group included Lee Radwizill and famed socialite Slim Keith.

(Truman with Lee Radziwill. UPI/Corbis-Bettmann.)

Unfortunately, just as Picasso’s relationship with Francoise ended so did Capote’s with Babe Paley. Their friendship drew to a close with the publication of Truman’s novel, Unanswered Prayers, which recounted intimate details of the lives of the Paley’s and their jet setting friends. The book damaged their relationship beyond repair and led to Capote’s fall from his carefully, constructed social pedestal.

So, are there any muses in your life who inspire you? Perhaps we all should take a page from these legendary men and find our very own muse.

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