The Mirror of Venus is an early, yet exemplary, painting of Sir Edward Burne-Jones's mature style — a combination of the styles of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Italian Renaissance. This unique mixture is certainly memorable, but The Mirror of Venus also stands out for its shift towards aestheticism. The painting utterly denies straightforward allegorical interpretation. There is no story — only an image truly exists. Burne-Jones separates Venus by her standing pose and brightly colored gown, and he places Venus and her followers in a barren, acrid landscape. The goddess and these women stare into an eerily still lake surrounded by flowers and find a sharp, mirror-like reflection gazing back. Furthermore, the barrenness of the landscape only emphasizes the improbability of finding such a lake. Taken as a whole, the painting stands as a singular beautiful image: lovely women in lovely gowns placed in a location which only emphasizes their loveliness.
Nonetheless, Burne-Jones gives the painting a somewhat disconcerting title, to match a somewhat disconcerting painting. Though the title does not allude to any specific story, Burne-Jones does allude to the figure of Venus, Roman goddess of love, which serves to endow the painting with greater symbolic significance. Venus, as a specific figure, stands above the lake and peers in, and yet, surprisingly, where she looks she finds many rocks intruding upon her ability to gaze upon herself. There are a number of ways to take this image in isolation: love is blind; or love is a state in which one cannot have total self-awareness; or physical attraction, while important, is not the only element which constitutes love. Without a story, no definitive conclusion can be reached: the image in itself allows for a variety of interpretations. And the image revels in this ability to provoke, as if aware that it is startling enough to make and affect an audience.
1. Two of Venus's followers gaze at Venus instead of their own reflections. What does this symbolize?
2. Venus is holding a plant in her right hand. How should one interpret this?
3. Burne-Jones was greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although he developed a style which is very much his own. How does The Mirror of Venus, painted after Rossetti's death, compare to Rossetti's later work, such as Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice?
4. To what extent does Burne-Jones retain in this painting the sense of naturalistic detail characteristic of early Pre-Raphaelite works?
5. Burne-Jones has seemingly created a landscape which is not directly based on any specific place, and yet it does not seem entirely unfamiliar. What locations would at least be reminiscent of such a background?
- Blending Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetics and Italian Renaissance Painting (The Mirror of Venus)
- Beyond the Aesthetically Pleasing in The Mirror of Venus
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 22 October 2006