Such creatively charged partnerships are, from the outside, often viewed as idyllic havens, even if the reality is often more complicated.
In 1929, Simone de Beauvoir was 21 years old when Jean-Paul Sartre, who was two-and-a-half years her senior, proposed marriage for the third time. As they walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, de Beauvoir rebuffed Sartre once more. They were two young, brilliant students of philosophy, who had their lives ahead of them. She wanted to write and, more important, she wanted the kind of life that wouldn’t interfere with such ambition. Sartre modified the proposal. What if, he suggested, they entered a different kind of marriage, one not bound by convention and that allowed them both to be free to explore their desire and love for others? “What we have,” he said, according to Carole Seymour-Jones’s 2008 biography, “A Dangerous Liaison,” and to de Beauvoir herself in “The Prime of Life” (1960), “is an essential love; but it’s good if we both experience contingent affairs.”
It was, as proposals go, one of the most famous in history between two writers, and their union, though never legal, would be chronicled and analyzed well after their deaths. Their partnership of free love was an enduring, irresistible topic, in part because they both cut such glamorous literary figures: the two furiously writing in separate corners of Café de Flore during the occupation, together publishing their literary magazine Les Temps Modernes and traveling around the world under the banner of radical, revolutionary causes. Their affairs were messy and complicated — their numerous love triangles thinly disguised in the many novels, memoirs and plays that they produced — and yet, despite it all, they shared an unshakable intellectual loyalty to one another. Throughout their lives, de Beauvoir and Sartre read each other’s drafts and offered edits, encouragement and support. Not only were their lives intertwined, so was the creation of their work.
Artists partnered with other artists — coupled, married or otherwise entangled — is as old as art itself. Did two artists, in their attraction to one another, create something that they might otherwise have not? There is a particular kind of glory and fame to be earned from such unions, from couples such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, wherein the daughter of a feminist mother ran off with her political philosopher father’s talented student, the two of them telling ghost stories with Lord Byron during a wet and rainy summer in Switzerland. (The story Mary wrote became “Frankenstein.”) The sisters Virginia and Vanessa Stephen — along with their respective and various partnerships — helped to sustain the mythology that artists and writers, as Dorothy Parker would famously put it, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.” There was Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose activism and advocacy for the Indigenous peoples of Mexico is a legacy as important as their artistic output. There was the great love story of the artists Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst, and their double wedding with the artist Man Ray and dancer Juliet Browner, who, as a young dancer and model, had previously dated the painter Willem de Kooning. (De Kooning’s own marriage to his fellow painter Elaine Fried was marred by alcoholism and extramarital affairs on both sides; they separated for about 20 years before reuniting.) There were the painters Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight, both students of the sculptor Augusta Savage, who found each other during the Harlem Renaissance. We have a desire to romanticize artistic couples. We reserve a particular kind of fascination for the idea that two artistic souls have found one another — and that, together, they created their own work but also some kind of a haven from the rest of the world.
BUT THE FANTASY of artistic marital bliss often glosses over harsher realities. History tends to remember the artist couples that reinforce classically white-dominated and heteronormative power structures: the Great Man and his long-suffering wife, who not only inspires him but annotates and types up his work. (Though perhaps Véra Nabokov — to whom Vladimir Nabokov dedicated nearly all of his books — is something of an exception, having been exalted into her own mythological status as a famously secretive minder, midwife and muse to a true literary genius.) Artists often seem to go out of their way to fortify this perception, no matter the cost and no matter if the truth was more complex. Last year, more than a thousand letters from the poet T. S. Eliot to his first (and likely unconsummated — Eliot took a vow of chastity in 1928) love, Emily Hale, were made available to be read at Princeton University. He wrote to her throughout the latter half of his turbulent marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he deserted but never divorced, and his and Hale’s companionship continued for several years after Haigh-Wood’s death. Hale is considered to be the missing piece in the story behind some of Eliot’s most celebrated verses, such as “Burnt Norton” (1936), the first poem of “The Four Quartets” (1943):
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Yet, Eliot’s indignation at Hale’s betrayal of his privacy (against his wishes, she donated his letters to Princeton, where they were to be kept sealed until 50 years after her death) was revealed in a statement he wrote in 1960, to be made public at the same time as her cache of his letters, an addendum of sorts. In it, he insists on the narrative his then-current biography put forth, one in which Haigh-Wood had been a source of encouragement and intellectual support to him: “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my 17 years with Vivienne seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.” (Eliot married Esmé Valerie Fletcher in 1957, not long after Hale had donated the letters.)
After all, marriage is still marriage — an institution bound to societal convention, in which household duties and raising a family so often firmly fall within the realm of woman’s work. Those who escaped marriage entirely often came from such enormous privilege and possessed such a steely determination to buck convention that they are exceptions to the norm, even if their existence implied spinsterhood or a lack of vitality. (The late 19th- and early 20th-century writer and art critic Vernon Lee — who never married, and whose eccentric ghost stories can read as wonderfully erotic — comes to mind. It’s also not surprising to learn that, as a young teenager, de Beauvoir wanted to grow up to become a nun.)
In the writer and psychologist Eileen Simpson’s 1982 memoir, “Poets in Their Youth,” which is about her marriage to the poet John Berryman and their circle of friends, she described a visit the couple paid to the writer Jean Stafford and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, at their house in Maine: “With little fuss [Stafford] conjured up three meals a day from the limited stocks of the general store, rows of S. S. Pierce cans from her pantry shelves, vegetables from local gardens, and insisted on doing it all herself.” Marriage was, and still is, a conventional route that calcified a certain hierarchy: Wives worked as scheduler and secretary, cook and cleaning lady, even if they had their own books to write, their own sculptures to create or their own paintings to paint. All too often, a husband overshadowed his wife and it was only later, after divorce or death, that the realization arrived that the wife’s work was just as good, if not better, than her husband’s. Imagine if Susan Sontag — who worked so tirelessly on her husband Philip Rieff’s seminal book, “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist” (1959), that Benjamin Moser’s excellent biography of her claims she wrote most of it herself using Rieff’s research — had never walked out of that marriage. But those stories are less fun to tell, they reveal acts of selfishness and cruelty that, though cultivated and rewarded by the idea of male genius, are rarely granted to his counterpart.
Of course, a relationship with an artist also offered a particularly appealing role, especially for women: to be that of the muse. Simpson’s marriage to Berryman meant entering a new world, one full of poets who stayed up late into the night debating verse. She recalls a visit from the writer Delmore Schwartz, who, with the publication of “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” in Partisan Review in December 1937, had become one of the youngest and brightest literary stars of his generation. He teasingly warned Simpson:
One of the hazards of being married to a poet, and there are many — ‘All poets’ wives have rotten lives’ — is that there’s no telling how one will be characterized in verse. … On the other hand, when you’re old, and your hair has turned gray … its color, recorded in the poem, will remain forever ‘the conflagration’ it is today.
Whomever Pablo Picasso loved, he soon painted — from Marie-Thérèse Walter, tenderly captured sleepy and pregnant with his child, to Dora Maar with her sorrowful, weeping eyes. It is impossible not to imagine the Italian writer Elsa Morante, a formidable force in her own right, in Alberto Moravia’s sensuous descriptions of a young woman on the beach in Capri in his 1954 novel, “Contempt.” Alfred Stieglitz’s black-and-white nude photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe are masterpieces, capturing an intimacy and sensuousness that she later expressed so easily in her own paintings. In many of the most renowned artist marriages, the woman was younger than the man; she was ambitious, eager to escape her family’s bourgeois expectations — the father of the painter Françoise Gilot, a stern French agronomist, was devastated when Gilot abandoned studying law for painting, a choice soon affirmed after she met Picasso. But as Gilot wrote in her 1964 memoir, there was a danger in being seen only through his eyes. She observed, perhaps a little too cruelly, how Olga Khokhlova, Picasso’s first wife, had almost become trapped in his immortalization of her. By Gilot’s account, Khokhlova clung to the attention that had once come from being Picasso’s partner long after the artist had moved on. To be a muse meant stifling one’s own creativity, and without one’s own work as an anchor — the balance of power was easily upended.
The artist Celia Paul was only 18 when, as a student at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, she met the middle-aged painter Lucian Freud, who was teaching that year. In her 2019 memoir, “Self-Portrait,” she described first meeting Freud, showing him a painting of hers in the hope that he would become her mentor. Instead, he became her lover, and later, the father of her child, and their lives were intertwined for nearly a decade, until they weren’t. “I felt guilty and powerful. I felt that I’d stepped into a limitless and dangerous world,” she wrote.
Today, a more feminist framework cautions against the role of the muse. How much did Gilot, for example, influence Picasso’s use of color? How much did Paul’s own paintings and figuration form some thread that tugged at Freud’s mind? We judge genius and mastery on not just one work of art but an entire body of it. And there is something breathtaking about seeing the evolution of an artist over a lifetime, though the operative word there is “time,” something housewives and mothers have less of. As the art historian and critic Barbara Rose (who was once married to the painter Frank Stella) has pointed out in her criticism, collected in her book “Autocritique: Essays on Art and Anti-Art 1963-1987,” our culture tends to worship, to a cultish degree, those female artists whose lives ended all too soon — be it Sylvia Plath or Eva Hesse or Francesca Woodman. Our adoration for them comes with a lament for lost potential, the brevity of their lives a metaphor for what so many women feel has happened to their own existence — that art can’t always come first, that a man, a marriage, children and home can subsume their own identity to the point of suffocation. It is never as often as we would like that a beautiful and brilliant woman steps away from her assigned role of helpmeet, of mother, of daughter and muse. So we celebrate the ones who we believe — on some artistic plane — were set free.
I WRITE ALL of this because I, too, have entered into marriage, and feel all too aware of what exactly I’m participating in. How easy it is to glamorize some of the women I’ve mentioned, even if many of them would later cite a kind of supreme instability or untenable happiness. I want to believe that the institution has changed, that there are ways this elaborate ceremony is not as conventionally damning as some make it out to be. If anything, today we are less enamored by the idea that any partnership is for life — even if I have entered it believing this with my heart and soul. Divorce is no longer so scandalous. Love is possible at any decade. Financial security and education point to women marrying later, and to lower birthrates. Yet it still feels like we are struggling, as a culture, to put the female artist on the same pedestal as her male equal, as so many women writers and artists, Paul among them, have pointed out in their lives and in their work. In her interview with The Paris Review in 1993, the writer Toni Morrison said of her ex-husband, and of men more generally:
I only know that I will never again trust my life, my future, to the whims of men, in companies or out. Never again will their judgment have anything to do with what I think I can do. That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better. Before that, all the men I knew did know better, they really did. My father and teachers were smart people who knew better. Then I came across a smart person who was very important to me who didn’t know better.
Perhaps the judgment of a powerful man in a woman’s life is hard to avoid. Perhaps marriage, as Morrison implies, required a type of submission for women of her generation. By nature, I know myself to be a companionable human, someone who requires friendship and laughter and touch, all things that are possible to achieve on one’s own, yes, but also more permanently granted in a loving partnership. It’s encouraging to know of marriages that truly managed to bridge a divide that an individual could not face alone. In the 1920s, Josef Albers was a humble professor at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. He stood out, with his country accent from the Ruhr Valley, an industrial area of western Germany, from the more refined and flashier teachers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In 1925, Albers married Anni Fleischmann, a young student from an affluent Jewish family who had been assigned to the more feminine tasks at the Bauhaus such as weaving. The two found love, and just as crucially, a commonality as outsiders (the school was forced to shut down in 1933 because of the encroaching demands of the Nazi party). When Josef was offered to lead a newly commissioned art school in North Carolina called Black Mountain College, the Alberses immigrated to the United States. It was there that Josef’s initial inability to speak English forced him to find other ways to express himself and educate. Even if — as detailed in Charles Darwent’s 2018 biography, “Josef Albers: Life and Work” — several of Josef’s female students recalled inappropriate behavior, including fondling or unwanted kissing from their teacher (who, unlike most of his colleagues, thought women should attend art school), his partnership with Anni has endured as one that not only interrogated our understanding of color and material but also nurtured a great many artists who might have otherwise been overlooked. The Alberses were artistic parents to Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg and his first wife, Susan Weil (who was also her husband’s collaborator until she discovered the affair he was having with Twombly — however valuable their mentorship, the Alberses couldn’t teach their students how to have a good marriage). When Asawa told Josef she wanted to marry her Black Mountain classmate Albert Lanier and have six children, Josef — according to a 1989 interview with Asawa — said “Gooooood, gooooood.” Then he added, looking straight at Lanier: “Don’t ever let her stop her work.”
IN THE OPENING paragraph of de Beauvoir’s introduction to “The Second Sex,” which she published in 1949, she admitted that it was a book she had resisted writing: “Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism.” Reluctant though she may have been, she had produced a masterpiece that examined the biology, history, folklore, philosophy, literature, economics, political theory and myth behind what it means to be a woman. Today, “The Second Sex” may read as outdated and contradictory in parts — de Beauvoir’s writing on fertility has been criticized, among other sections. Yet the book was also, by a much smaller measure, though one no less radical, a product of her relationship to Sartre, of questioning what he meant when he once told her that she possessed a “man’s intelligence.” De Beauvoir was writing from a critical remove, but “The Second Sex” was also a deeply personal interrogation. She very well could have been thinking of herself when she wrote that “[W]hat singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other.” One element of de Beauvoir’s legacy is a reminder of how women artists are constantly defined against their male partner, whether or not they wish this to be so.
After de Beauvoir’s death, her letters to Sartre were published unedited, a choice made by her adopted daughter, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, who is also her literary executor. The curtain was pulled back to reveal a partnership that was more destructive than previously imagined. Lovers had been betrayed, and de Beauvoir and Sartre’s own pattern of grooming and seducing young women looked a little less free, and a little less progressive. How could the woman who wrote “The Second Sex” have endorsed this behavior? There was a cost, the letters implied, to being the de Beauvoir, and not the Sartre, in a marriage. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, such transparency, de Beauvoir still managed to convey the complexity of wanting companionship, of craving the possession that a partnership requires, while also wanting to become her own person. She understood the two sides of being a woman that we are all too often forced to hold on our own.