In his Pygmalion series (1875-78), Edward Burne-Jones embodies the classic tale of ideal love and human aspiration in a narrative sequence of four images. In the well-known story, Pygmalion, who finds no living woman beautiful enough for him to love, sculpts an ivory statue of an ideal woman and falls in love with it. He asks Aphrodite to send him a woman like the statue. The goddess answers his prayers by giving life to his work and names her Galatea, whom he then marries.
The Heart Desires, the first painting in the series, can be interpreted as a prologue to the tale. Burne-Jones depicts the young sculptor, lost in thought, in what appears to be a museum. although we cannot see the unknown work being contemplated, the sculptured trio of the Graces in the background gives an indication to his thoughts. The figures are illuminated by a light source shining down on their sculpted forms, and their reflection on the glossy marble floor serves to remind us of the artistic ideal for which the sculptor strives.
The second painting, entitled The Hand Refrains, shows Pygmalion in front of his finished work. The light streaming through the window again highlights the statue's ivory beauty, which also represents the limitation of human power -- the artist's hard work has produced an ideal figure but no mortal effort can bring his desire to life. The third painting in the series, The Godhead Fires, demonstrates the divine power of the goddess as she bestows the breathe of life. Borne on a cloud of doves and roses, Aphrodite supports Galatea as she gazes out in bewilderment. Half woman and half statue, her grasping arms begin her transformation, while her feet are still rooted on the pedestal on which she was created. In The Soul Attains Burne-Jones represents the final stage of the legend with Pygmalion kneeling adoringly in front of his newly realized woman. She yields her hands to him; however, she does not meet his gaze but looks away in the distance. Characteristic of many of Burne-Jones's women, and of the women of PRB painting, her gaze expresses a sense of mystery and unearthliness. It seems as though she has not yet comprehended her reason for being and what her creator has now attained.
Painted in delicate and subdued tones which contrast the rich palette of his earlier works such as Le Chant D'Amour and Laus Veneris, Burne-Jones infuses this Greek allegory with elements of medieval courtly love. One can view the series as a clear homage to Greek sculpture in the artist's treatment of the nude figures and drapery. The painter also integrates the romantic quest for pure, ideal love with melancholy undertones of longing and unfulfilled desire, evident in the eyes of the sculptor as well as the individual titles of the works.
1. In the first of the series, The Heart Desires, Burne-Jones includes two women walking past this scene, looking in the doorway. What is the significance of their presence, which goes unnoticed by the sculptor? How do they contrast the artist's ideal desires?
2. In the last painting in the series, The Soul Attains, the artist shows Galatea looking unfocused and into the distance, instead of meeting Pygmalion's eyes. Could this reveal the uncertainty of her role? Does it say anything about the relationship between Galatea and Pygmalion, as she is brought to life solely by his request?
3. In his article, Waters notes that "the whole of Burne-Jones's work is concerned with the psychology of love." How could we define the psychology of love in the story of Pygmalion and Galatea and how does it relate to the artist's other portrayals of love? What other aspects of love does he depict?
4. Burne-Jones defines a picture as "a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be -- in a better light than any light that ever shone -- in a land that no one can define or remember, only desire -- and the forms divinely beautiful." How does the theme of the Pygmalion series support this idea? What does this say about the mortal, real world? Does Burne-Jones find it unworthy of depiction? How does this quest for the infinite relate to the ideas of the PRB?
5. The Pygmalion series was exhibited in 1879 at the Grosvenor Gallery, the brain child of Victorian aristocrat Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife Blanche. The Gallery intended to challenge the Academy and eight works of Burne-Jones were displayed in the first exhibition. Burne-Jones's success has often been attributed to this exposure. What aspects of his works did the public respond to? What qualities did they find so attractive?
6. The story of Pygmalion provides an archetypal example of the relationship between artist and work, creator and creation. Can this be extended to the personal lives of the some of members of the PRB? How could this be related to their often romantic relationships with their models, as in the case of Burne-Jones's well-known affair with Maria Zambaco?
De Lisle, Fortunee. Burne-Jones. London: Methuen & Co., 1904.
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.
Last modified 26 October 2004