In this series of oil paintings, Burne-Jones uses the myth of Pygmalion to explore the concept that dissatisfaction with earthly reality produces artistic creation. The sculptor Pygmalion, who scorns mortal women and their imperfections, seeks an ideally beautiful female form. The artist, in other words, cannot rely on direct observation of nature for inspiration; rather, he must look within himself and to his own concept of perfection. He then sculpted an unrivaled beauty that certainly no earthly woman could match, and he subsequently fell in love with his own creation and treated it as his beloved. After praying to Venus to provide him with a wife who could compare to his sculpted ivory, his wish was granted and the sculpture grew warm and came to life.
The first of the series, The Heart Desires, shows the artist deep in contemplation, calculating his ideals of beauty. Behind him we see The Three Graces illuminated by a shaft of strong light, a clear indication of BJ's classical influence. Two women are visible through the doorway, hurrying through the streets; they most likely serve to contrast artistic ideal with (in the case of Pygmalion) inadequate reality.
The Hand Refrains shows Pygmalion beside his completed work which is, again, illuminated by a shaft of light. As before, a woman is visible through the open door. In The Godhead Fires Venus imbues the sculpture with life; her attire is highly classical and her appearance ethereal. She is accompanied by a flock of doves, and the powerful moment of transformation is heightened by the interlocking of the women's arms.
Finally the artist's wish has been fulfilled; in The Soul Attains he kneels before his own creation, weakened by her overwhelming beauty, as she gazes off into some undefined space. A single rose bud lies at her feet, a remnant of Venus's visit. Her position in the composition has shifted emphatically from the right to left sides, emphasizing her new found mobility.
Burne Jones, who sought higher ideals of love and beauty, was staunchly opposed to materialism and the industrial revolution. Does this series convey his goals and beliefs, or does it simply a continue PRB Romanticism and interest in themes of love?
How does his interest in Classicism come into play? Burne-Jones made a few trips to Italy in his lifetime. Where do we see the influence of Michelangelo in this cycle? Are there other elements of his style that display an Italian influence?
How do the architectural settings and perspectival methods compare to other Pre-Raphaelite works (and indeed Burne-Jones's other paintings)? Are any of Burne-Jones's decorative and design interests, or the influence of German woodcuts, evident in this series?
Does Burne Jones' depiction of the Pygmalion myth present artistic creation in an entirely positive light? Is there something tragic in the idea that an ideal form of beauty has been achieved?
Last modified 25 October 2006