Venus: The Embodiment of Love in Edward Burne-Jones’ Paintings

Sehr Charania '07, English and History of Art 151, Brown University, 2006

[Victorian Web Home —> Visual Arts —> Artists —> Pre-Raphaelitism—> Sir Edward Burne-Jones —> Paintings by Burne-Jones]

decorated initial 'I' n classical Roman mythology, Venus epitomized love and beauty — she transcended the mortal reality of the transience of both love and beauty and was forever immortalized in numerous paintings, epithets, poems, and sculptures. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took a keen interest in Venus since she provided them with an object of unadulterated beauty within which existed a singular source of both earthly and metaphysical perfection. A sharp contrast to their predecessors who painted in a more mechanical style, the Pre-Raphaelite were more interested in creating highly detailed, intensely hued, and complex pieces of art. It seemed fitting that many Pre-Raphaelites chose Venus as the object of their artwork throughout the Pre-Raphaelite period.

Venus has been portrayed in a variety of disparate manners. While many in the Brotherhood depicted Venus as a highly sexualized femme fatale, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sidney Harold Meteyard, Burne-Jones provided a notable aberration to this trend. Instead of fashioning Venus as an object of corporeal desire, he created the image of Venus as an introspective and reflective woman by largely deemphasizing, but nonetheless not completely negating, her sexuality. Burne-Jones’ depiction of Venus is a compromise between Venus’ form from classical antiquity in which she not only was the goddess of love and beauty, but also of goddess of vegetation and nature, and the Pre-Raphaelite movement toward creating images of women that were realistic and also erotic in their nature, akin to the paintings of Rossetti and Millais.

The Mirror of Venus Laus Veneris

Left: The Mirror of Venus by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Right: Laus Veneris by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Burne-Jones’ depiction of Venus in The Mirror of Venus, Laus Veneris, Venus, Venus Rising from the Sea and Venus Epithalamia, all depict a contemplative Venus. While other Pre-Raphaelite painters emphasized erogenous areas of the Venus’ form in paintings such as Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia and Meteyard’s Venus and Mars, Burne-Jones chose to paint these areas in an anatomically correct manner, but understatedly to emphasize Venus’ meditative glance.

A Sculptor's Model

A Sculptor's Model by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

When compared to Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema’s painting of A Sculptor's Model, one can see the great difference between a contemplative Venus and a highly sexualized Venus. A Sculptor's Model is an extremely sensual painting of a nude Venus in a semi-relaxed pose, standing by a collection of long twigs. The painting also shows a man’s enjoying this display of Venus in her nude form. Although Venus is in a contemplative state, the purpose of this painting is not to emphasize her introspective nature, but instead to highlight her erotic body and the voyeuristic glance of the man standing below. This painting has much more emphasis on Venus’ form than paintings by Burne-Jones and shows Venus’ body as a piece of work that one can enjoy sexually. Although Burne-Jones elegantly molds Venus’ body in his paintings, the details of Venus’ face capture the attention of the viewer more so than her body. The mystery surrounding Venus’ averted gaze immediately supersedes one’s inclination to visually indulge in her body, thus Burne-Jones creates an effect unlike many other Pre-Raphaelites when painting Venus.

Venus Rising from the Sea Venus Epithalamia

Left: Venus Rising from the Sea; Right: Venus Epithalamia by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Both Venus Epithalamia and Venus Rising from the Sea show a nude Venus, however there are no blatant sexual innuendos associated with these paintings. In both paintings, highly erotic areas of the female form are not laboriously emphasized, such as the nipples, pelvic region, and the navel; instead one’s attention is drawn quickly and sharply to the seemingly despondent and introspective countenance of Venus. Burne-Jones allows one to appreciate Venus’ physical beauty while simultaneously focusing one’s attention to her face, thereby greatly desexualizing the image. Venus’ classical role in mythology as a goddess of love and beauty led to her objectification in art since Venus was taken to be a metaphysical representation of perfection. Emphasizing Venus’ facial expression is a powerful tool that Burne-Jones uses in many of his paintings to transcend the traditional notion of Venus — he transforms Venus’ role from an being an object to a being a person.

In Venus Rising from the Sea (c. 1870), Burne-Jones creates a mixed sensation of movement and stasis — a departure from immortal to mortal life. The title of the work and the painting itself juxtapose the ambiguous relationship of fixity and temporality. As suggested from the title, Venus is birthed from the sea. Given new life, Venus’ blowing hair and her walking stance further corroborate the newly animate environment. However, the fixity of Venus’ gaze and the mute color palette used by Burne-Jones, results in Venus looking less than natural, she instead resembles a statue — similar to the statue of Venus de Milo. By giving her a stone-like exterior, Burne-Jones creates a demi-androgynous Venus, brazenly displaying her strong form and heavy musculature, particularly in her arms and legs, while maintaining a feminine pose despite her overall strong frame. She is clearly demarcated from her surroundings by the use of dark shadowing around her form, further emphasizing a clear departure Venus makes from her immortality in the sea to the dawn of her mortal fate on land.

Although Venus seems unnaturally frozen in a moment of reverie after being thrust from the sea in Venus Rising From the Sea, she is still one with nature. Venus’ pallid skin blends with the bare background, indicating her close association with nature, her progenitor. After her release from the sea, she became the external embodiment of nature in the new and mortal world upon which she is standing. Certain curves on her body, particularly around her ribs, resemble the pattern in the sky, further strengthening her oneness with nature. Venus’ feet also merge into the ground upon which she is standing, thereby solidifying her central place in the painting and simultaneously giving her the grandeur that one would expect of a goddess.

The sparseness of the background allows Venus to be the singular feature in this painting; more poignantly, Venus’ face is the central focus — it is her face that embodies everything around her: the tumultuous skies and sea, the earth, and her own fate, creating an overall mood of despondency, reflection, and novelty. Venus’ expression appears surprisingly placid in light of her recent expatriation from the sea — the calmness in her countenance is sharply contrasted to the rest of her surroundings which appear tumultuous. Venus, a representation of nature’s perfection, is given agency as she becomes a calming force amidst this chaotic landscape.

Burne-Jones paints Venus in her nude form again in Venus Epithalamia (c.1871). Although this painting is similar to Venus Rising from the Sea, his portrayal of Venus is markedly different. Venus Epithalamia is taken from the classical story of Venus’ ill-fated marriage to Vulcan. Thus, instead of portraying Venus as a strong and commanding power, as he did in Venus Rising from the Sea, Burne-Jones shows her as reticent and concealed in Venus Epithalamia. Her unease is evident and her discomfort can be seen on her face. Venus’ alienation is evident as she tries to hide from people in the other room — she is in effect trying to hide from herself by retreating into her own body. Moreover, Venus does not look out of the canvas; instead she looks within herself, an element Burne-Jones uses in many of his other renditions of Venus.

Burne-Jones creates a more sensual Venus in Venus Epithalamia — her breasts are more formed, her abdomen is sleek, her clavicle is highlighted, and her legs have a youthful vibrancy as indicated in the sheen on her lower left leg. Burne-Jones creates a more sensual image for the purpose of foreshadowing Venus’s own future and extramarital affair. Venus’ discontented expression in Venus Epithalamia has a similar effect; it is the external manifestation of her internal self. Her countenance is more sorrowful when compared to Venus Rising From the Sea — she seems disturbed and uneasy with her current situation. Venus is looking inwardly and seems hesitant; she leans into her hand, which is anchoring her to the table, as if she were trying to stabilize herself, a very different Venus from the confident one seen in Venus Rising from the Sea, who uncompromisingly controlled the ground upon which she was standing. Venus in Venus Epithalamia is hiding, not only herself, but also a secret. Her mystery is captured in a moment of contemplation and hiding — she has lost the power that she possessed in Venus Rising from the Sea.

Venus’ form in Venus Epithalamia is conspicuously differentiated from the background, unlike in Venus Rising from the Sea. Venus’ soft coloring in the former painting, is a sharp contrast from the wood finishing behind her. Although one can surmise that Venus did not want to be found in light of her situation, ironically, this effect draws more attention to her. Only the garland that is hanging on the doorway mirrors the softness and fluidity of her body — this vegetation is a natural element superimposed upon an unnatural world, much like Venus. Her soft curves are contrasted with the hard lines of the furniture behind her; she is a misplaced and anachronistic feature of her surroundings. Her position is therefore weakened as she is no longer an element of her surroundings, but rather an interloper in them.

The mythos associated with her name indicate that Venus should possess goddess-like qualities, yet the Venus portrayed in Venus Epithalamia is anything but a archetypical goddess — she is intimidated, afraid, and unsure of herself and her surroundings. Burne-Jones’ reconciles the discrepancy between Venus’ mortal-like exterior and her mythological legacy by creating an expression of genuine contemplation on her face. Her pensive and ethereal glance indicates that she does not belong to this world; she is instead embodying a metaphysical ideal that could be attributed to a goddess. In effect, Burne-Jones is diffusing much of the ill-repute of Venus’ love affair by painting her in a moment of contemplation.

In both Venus Rising from the Sea and Venus Epithalamia, Burne-Jones paints Venus’ lower body in similar poses and uses similar outlining technique, however, the effect that this creates is distinctive. In Venus Rising from the Sea, Venus’ stance anticipates future movement, despite the restrictions of the current temporality in the painting, thus giving Venus a sense of agency and power. Conversely, Burne-Jones paints Venus in Venus Epithalamia, as a stationary figure, one that is unable and unwilling to move, as though she were only an embellishment. Her hesitancy is indicative of her lack of power in the situation and her feeling of detachment from her current surroundings.

Venus’ representation of the female form is clearly different from the other representations of woman in Venus Epithalamia. The woman descending from the stairs are cloaked and have a pious aura. Interestingly, Venus echoes their bowed heads, thereby hinting that she too is pious and innocent despite her love affair. By creating a distinction between Venus as the mythological character and as a woman, Burne-Jones creates empathy for the woman. It appears that Burne-Jones viewed Venus’ extramarital affair not as a shameful event to befall a goddess, but as a consequence of her distressing situation. By showing Venus as a woman who is so innocently hesitant in her own surroundings, he creates an aura of discomfort and sadness for both the viewer and for Venus. By allowing her to parallel the pious women’s gazes; he thereby asserts that Venus was not wrong for consummating her relationship with another man while married to Vulcan. Burne-Jones does not, however, attempt to create further physical parallels between the pious women and Venus — Venus is the embodiment of beauty, thus she cannot be adequately compared to a mortal. Because of Venus’ central position in the painting in the foreground and her conspicuous nudity, one’s eye is draw decidedly toward her.

The Mirror of Venus

Left: The Mirror of Venus by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Burne-Jones paints Venus in The Mirror of Venus (1898) in her clothed form, in an undisclosed location, looking into a lake with her maidens. It is difficult for one to immediately attribute allegorical or symbolic meaning to this painting; it is as though Burne-Jones created Venus in The Mirror of Venus as a completely aesthetic painting. While the mood and color scheme of the painting are reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, one can also see the influence of Italian Renaissance art in The Mirror of Venus. The seeming contradiction of placing beautiful and vivid maidens in an arid landscape provides a pivotal point of comparison and union of Pre-Raphaelite technique and the art of the Italian Renaissance. Burne-Jones was highly impressed with Botticelli’s artwork and it seems as though he was influenced by his rendition of Venus in Venus in The Mirror of Venus. One can see traces of this work in Burne-Jones’ paintings of Venus: the confident yet pensive stare, the curvaceous body, and the long, flowing hair. Although The Mirror of Venus depicts Venus in a different setting and manner than does Botticelli’s Venus, both artists adhere to a similar concept of the woman: dreamy and distant, but nevertheless beautiful and elegant.

Burne-Jones experiments with two related effects in Venus in The Mirror of Venus to emphasize Venus’ inward gaze. Firstly, he creates a circle of maidens who are dressed much like Venus and posses similar facial countenances as well. Because of their similarity in form and garb, one is not immediately struck by Venus as being a metaphysical and singular beautiful creature as one can see in Burne-Jones’ other paintings of Venus. Instead, one is drawn to Venus in an unobtrusive manner, by gradually following the painting spatially. The maidens are all at a lower level than Venus and seem to resemble her in many respects, but the focus is nevertheless on Venus — her statuesque body stands as a beacon above the horizon. By using this technique, Burne-Jones separates the metaphysical and mythological character of Venus from her mortality. By bringing Venus almost to the level of other mortals, yet not allowing her to traverse into the mortal realm, Burne-Jones is affirming Venus’ human-like qualities while maintaining that she possesses goddess-like qualities. One can also see that Venus’ expression is dull and drawn in comparison to the other women’s faces. While most of the other maidens are engaged and looking into the lake, Venus is searching beyond the lake and within herself to find answers.

Burne-Jones’ also uses the reflective quality of the lake to emphasize Venus’ inward gaze. The reflection of the lake, taken literally, could be indicative of Venus’ reflection of her inner self. One can also see that while other maiden’s faces are highlighted in the lake, Venus’ face is not, indicating that she is still symbolically lost and cannot see or find herself, further emphasizing a reason for her introspective expression. Venus is singular in this respect — she has no interest in seeing her physical reflection in the lake although she symbolizes all things beautiful. She instead looks away from the lake and everyone else to find answers — answers that she may or may not find within herself.

Burne-Jones’ background landscape in Venus in The Mirror of Venus is a sharp departure from the rest of the painting. Dotted with sparse trees and mounds of dirt, there appears to be no life existing on this land; this area thereby serves to momentarily neutralize and distract from the beauty of the foreground. Burne-Jones’ use of dichotomies in this painting is indicative of his overall message of how barren space and vibrant life can coexist. One can see that the other women are in awe of the lake and are enchanted by its beauty and vibrancy, however, Venus’ appearance seems to mirror that of the barren landscape. One cannot decipher what she is thinking; one only knows that her attention is not directed towards the obvious focal point as is the gaze of the other maidens. Venus in this painting is looking inwardly as she does in other Burne-Jones’ paintings — however even though she is surrounded by nature, a place where she should feel most comfortable, nature in this context is abysmal. It is within this uninspiring and lifeless space that she is searching for herself.

Burne-Jones’ Venus (c. 1861) is one of the first oil paintings that he completed after returning from Italy. His initial paintings of Venus took on a more innocent view of the goddess, painting her in an unadulterated manner. Later works by Burne-Jones depicted Venus in a more dramatic light. Burne-Jones chose to emphasize only the upper body and face in this rendition of the goddess. The maturity that Venus derives from her gaze is juxtaposed with her seemingly youthful and innocent features. Venus’ glance is averted to the viewer’s left and she appears to be in deep reverie, almost as though she were in a trance. Resembling other Pre-Raphaelite women, her fiery red hair, ruby lips, and deep bronze clothing are indicative of a strong woman. However, her vulnerability can be easily seen in her face; her despondency detracts from the power that she could potentially posses — the power of other Pre-Raphaelite women and the power of a goddess.

Like other depictions of Venus that Burne-Jones has painted, this one emphasizes her introspective nature. She is deep in contemplation and is absorbed in her thoughts. Burne-Jones uses bright colors to once again emphasize the dichotomy within the painting itself, similar to the one seen in The Mirror of Venus, except in Venus, Burne-Jones chooses to create an internal division as there is no landscape to which Venus can be compared. Venus’ clothing and hair are indicative of a free spirited and unbridled woman, someone with passion and desires. However Venus’ face speaks otherwise. Her forlorn and wistful stare lend one to believe that she is sapped of all passion and vitality — she seems unhappy and jaded. The dark background further emphasizes Venus’ appearance, particularly her vacant and searching eyes. Venus looks desolate and despondent, unable to bring her eyes to the viewer and unable to find herself in her shifted gaze.Venus in The Mirror of Venus Burne-Jones’ Laus Veneris depicts a clothed Venus in a confined space, surrounded by her female attendants, similar to the formation seen in The Mirror of Venus. Venus is markedly different from the rest of the women; she is sitting in a relaxed pose with a crown on her lap while she strokes her hair and looks into the space around her. The other women are playing musical instruments and sit in a more alert manner, indicating that they are in a subordinate position to Venus, who in this painting is the Queen. Only Venus is wearing orange garb, which was also seen in Burne-Jones’ Venus, the other women are robed in burgundy and blue shades and are much less striking than Venus.

Laus Veneris

Right: Laus Veneris by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Laus Veneris is a key representation of Burne-Jones’ usage of both Pre-Raphaelite tradition and classical Italian Renaissance art. Venus is painted in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition: she has long, vibrant hair, a strong neck, and features that are not classically beautiful. Her surroundings are painted in a more classical Italian style — the decadent tapestries and wall décor. The juxtaposition of these artistic traditions gives greater depth to the painting — Venus, painted in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, is representative of a strong woman. The artwork around her shows a different time and attitude however. Melding two time frames gives the painting an anachronistic ambience, but is effective in conveying the general theme and storyline of the painting.

Burne-Jones describes Venus by creating a story that literally surrounds her in this confined space. Through the imagery found in the wall décor and the scene outside the window, one can gain a better understanding of Venus. Through the window, one can see knights riding past the women — they seem enraptured by these maidens. The intensity in their longing is cooled by the icy blue frame that surrounds the window, possibly indicating the hopelessness of Venus’ situation. The walls in the chamber are decorated with paintings that allude to mythological events. On the left-hand corner on the wall, one can see a nude siren, reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of women with long, blonde hair and strong features, surrounded by an angel, with his outstretched red wings. The siren’s pose is similar to Burne-Jones’ depiction of Venus in Venus Rising From the Sea, however the siren on the wall is painted in a more Pre-Raphaelite manner, unlike the Venus that is sitting with her maidens in the foreground in the same painting. The juxtaposition of two different styles of painting of women allows one to see the influence of the earlier Pre-Raphaelites on Burne-Jones. In the right-hand corner, a vivacious Venus is being pulled by a chariot that is being led by doves. Venus is fully clothed in vibrant hues and has long, flowing hair. It also appears as though she has a nimbus above her head — the opposite of the sedated Venus in the foreground who has taken off the element that makes her symbolically grander than other women, her crown.

The subject matter for Laus Veneris was taken from Swinburne’s highly sensual and erotic poem of the same name in which a Christian knight and Venus fall in love, much to the Pope’s chagrin, who demands that the knight repent. Swinburne uses sexual imagery to illustrate the story upon which the poem and the painting are based.

No fruit of theirs, but fruit of my desire,
For her love's sake whose lips through mine respire;
Her eyelids on her eyes like flower on flower,
Mine eyelids on mine eyes like fire on fire.

Moreover, this poem combines characteristics of both classical antiquity and mythology. Venus is not only a goddess-like figure in this poem, but she also is an allegorical woman who has mortal desires and suffers the consequences of those desires. In Swinburne’s poem, Venus passes through different phases of vitality, starting with a state of lethargy in the beginning of the poem and ending with a more forceful position. The first stanza shows Venus asleep while the knight describes her body.

Asleep or waking is it? for her neck,
Kissed over close, wears yet a purple speck
Wherein the pained blood falters and goes out;
Soft, and stung softly--fairer for a fleck.

It appears as though Swinburne began Las Veneris with an elegy to Venus — she has no life in her body while she is deep in her slumber. Burne-Jones’ has taken this languid Venus as the subject of his painting in which she seems drained of her energy, resting softly on her chair. Swinburne then transitions to a more animated and sexual Venus in the middle of the poem:

For she lies, laughing low with love; she lies,
And turns his kisses on her lips to sighs,
To sighing sound of lips unsatisfied,
And the sweet tears are tender with her eyes.

Swinburne concludes his poem with a very different Venus than he had introduced earlier. Venus, here, is one with great power and resolve:

Fair still, but fair for no man saving me,
As when she came out of the naked sea
Making the foam as fire whereon she trod,
And as the inner flower of fire was she.

Swinburne alludes to Venus’ mythological engendering from the sea, imbuing her with much dominance and authority. Using phrases such as "Making the foam as fire" and "the inner flower of fire was she", Swinburne uses two very disparate and primitive aspects of nature and juxtaposes them by comparing both foam and flowers to fire. By using such a technique, Swinburne alludes to Venus’ dual nature of existing as a mythological figure and an allegory which belongs to a different era. This technique can also be seen in Laus Veneris itself, with the various representations of Venus in one painting.

Burne-Jones’ choice in choosing the listless Venus from the beginning of Swinburne’s poem as his focal point indicates that he was more interested in exploring the corporeal aspects of mortal love and carnal desire. Burne-Jones paints the chamber in an embellished manner and displays the decadence and sadness of the milieu. This is different from the uncloaked and confident Venus that Burne-Jones’ depicted in Venus Rising From the Sea, which was a completely allegorical work. Painting the mythological counterpart of Venus on the chamber walls serves a point of comparison, to show a clear demarcation between the human Venus and the Venus from myth.

Burne-Jones creates a very different image of Venus from his contemporaries — a contemplative goddess who is thrust into the mortal realm. Molding Venus into a pensive woman in various surroundings allowed Burne-Jones to illustrate the many facets of the woman: the goddess, the mortal, and the allegorical figure. By showing Venus in a variety of roles, ranging from a powerful and commanding goddess in Venus Rising From the Sea to a intimidated woman in Venus Epithalamia, Burne-Jones creates a three-dimensional image of Venus’ allegory, in both her physical form and her psyche, allowing one to understand Venus as an integrated whole — not only as a myth or painting, but rather as a multi-faceted person.


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Last modified 26 December 2006