Sir Edward Burne-Jones's Medievalist The Beguiling of Merlin (1874) reflects the artist's ideas of "love, infatuation, power, entrapment and betrayal" (Liverpool Museum). Burne-Jones's romantic obsession with Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur contributed to his artistic worship of beauty above all else. According to Wood, this image, exhibited in the historic Grosvenor Gallery opening in 1877, illustrates an episode from the French medieval Romance of Merlin. The scene shows Nimue, a Lady of the Lake, casting Merlin into a deep sleep through her spells. Merlin, after falling in love with Nimue, consented to teach her his skills in enchantment. Here woman stands in the position of power, holding a book of spells, while Merlin lies helpless and subdued, entangled in the trappings of the hawthorn bush and in his love for Nimue.
Burne-Jones shows Nimue standing forcefully over Merlin, who falters weakly under her enchanting gaze. The snakes wound in her hair recall the Medusa of classical mythology, who turned those who looked at her into stone. Nimue's stance dictates the movement of the entire scene, as the sinewy, arching branches of the hawthorn echo the curve of her neck. Elaborate drapery detailed in the figures' clothing accentuates their placement and stance in the composition, as does the dark color of their clothing placed against the pale brown and white of the hawthorn bush. The composition positions Merlin so that the movement of the Nimue's figure and the hawthorn bush seem to press him closer the ground, causing him to recoil as if under physical pressure. Nimue holds the book of spells away from her body and away from Merlin, emphasizing that she holds the power of enchantment and of motion while he remains defenseless and immobilized.
Burne-Jones painted the head of Nimue from that of Maria Zambaco, with whom shared a romance between 1868 and 1871. In a letter to his friend Helen Gaskell (image) in 1893 (Liverpool Museum), he hinted that when he used Maria's head as inspiration for Nimue's figure, he perhaps paralleled his own love and infatuation for Maria with Merlin's susceptibility to Nimue's guileful powers of love and enchantment.
1. Upon the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery exhibit, Henry James reportedly called Burne-Jones' paintings "by far the most interesting things in the Grosvenor Gallery . . . in the palace of art there are many chambers, and that of which Mr Burne-Jones holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertility of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gifts as a colourist.... all these things constitute a brilliant distinction" (Liverpool Museum). What distinguishes Burne-Jones' work from that of contemporary PRB artists? What makes a work characteristically identifiable as belonging to Burne-Jones?
2. How does Burne-Jones's version of the femme fatale, embodied here in the figure of Nimue, differ from that of Rossetti?
3. Why did Arthurian Legend appeal so much to Burne-Jones? How does his personal interpretation of Pre-Raphaelite Italianate and classical ideas reveal itself in the image's mood, color, and drapery?
5. Does the work foretell any inclination to the Aesthetic movement? If so, how?
6. Waters noted that "the whole of Burne-Jones's work is concerned with the psychology of love." How does Burne-Jones's psychology of love compare with that of other PRB artists we have looked at, for example Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti?
Waters, Bill. Burne-Jones -- A Quest for Love: Works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt and Related Works by Contemporary Artists. London: Peter Nahum, 1993. Catalogue number 7.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 26 October 2004