A muse is someone, often a woman, who inspires an artist, writer or musician. Anyone can technically be a muse. However, through the ages, certain muses have become iconic in their own right. Linda McCartney was a muse to her husband Paul. Kate Moss has been a muse to the artist Banksy. When we think of these iconic muses, particularly in more traditional art, we usually think of very young and very white women.
However, some muses that break this mould do come to mind. Josephine Baker, an African American woman who moved to France and became a cabaret performer, is a celebrated one. She became a muse to many Art Deco artists and jazz musicians during her rise in popularity in the 20s and 30s. Madame CJ Walker, the first female millionaire in the US through building a black/afro hair care empire, gave birth to a muse – A’Lelia Walker. She hosted elaborate and glitzy parties for cultural elites of all races in 1920s New York and inspired and awed them in the process.
The UK also has an important muse that history is only starting to remember again. Her name is Fanny Eaton.
Fanny Eaton was a muse for a group of artists that pioneered an art movement. Her face inspired some of the movement’s most famous works which still hang in galleries around the world today.
But first, what is an art movement?
An art movement is a group of works that share similar artistic values and philosophies, usually by a group of artists during a set period of time. Pop art or Surrealism are examples many are familiar with. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was started by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The brotherhood was a secret society of 19th-century artists inspired by Italian art pre-Raphael. (Raphael, the famous artist whose contemporaries were Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci). They weren’t fans of Raphael or the fact that the art establishment touted Raphael and Renaissance art as the standard.
According to the Tate, Pre-raphaelite art studied “serious subjects treated with maximum realism” which was in contrast to a lot of art of the time.
One of these serious subjects was Fanny Eaton, their muse.
Fanny Eaton, originally born Fanny Antwistle, was born in St. Andrews in Jamaica in 1835. The details around her beginnings are very vague but by 1851 she was working in St. Pancras in London as a domestic servant and living with her mother Matilda Foster.
The identity of her father is unclear. Fanny was referred to as a ‘mulatto’ or mixed race woman, so he is presumed to be a white man, but it is unclear what his relationship was to her mother. Her mixed race appearance which would have been exoticised by quite a few during that era endeared her to the Brotherhood. Her racial ambiguity inspired them to use her as a study for many different characters in their artworks. Despite the notoriously rigid Victorian society, including its harsh beauty standards, Fanny was considered beautiful and referred to as having ‘a fine head’.
Fanny’s story, even though we know so little of it, is incredible. Incredible because models from non-White backgrounds are still fighting to kick down barriers to this very day. And yet so many years ago she played a part in one of the western world’s most elitist institutions.
Fanny modelled for around 10 years, using the money to supplement her income from her work as a cleaner to support 10 children.
Most of her story has been erased with time but her image still stands against the walls of prestigious galleries all over the world.
Jephthah by John Everett Millais – 1867 (National Museum Wales)
The Mother of Moses by Simeon Soloman – 1860 (Delaware Art Museum, US)
Head of Mrs. Eaton, 1861 (Yale Centre for British Art)