Beauty and fortune take their toll on the men of Sir Edward Burne-Jones's The Wheel of Fortune. Fortune stands next to her wheel, turning men toward a rise or a fall, determining their earthly wealth and power. The goddess gazes toward the middle figure on the wheel. The scepter in his hand indicates he is a king, and he has fallen beneath a slave —the top figure whose feet are in chains. At the very bottom, cut off by the edge of the painting, a poet's face looks up in Fortune's direction. The men's necks, torsos, and limbs stretch and seem to writhe on the canvas. Textured shading accentuates the muscularity and contortion of the nude figures, giving them an earthy, rough quality despite their idealization. The figure of Fortune takes up the same space in the composition as the king and slave combined, and the folds of garments do not quite mask her sensuous form, set off by her stance. Unlike the men on the wheel, Fortune stands with an easy grace; the arm on the wheel does not strain and her head bows gently. Her smooth skin glows and her expression does not betray the yearning, strain or emotion of the other faces.
The focus on Fortune's full standing form gives her a monumentality that suggests her power derives from her beauty not just her position at the wheel. Though she is wrapped heavy folds of cloth, she conveys more sensuality than the nude forms. She cannot see who she turns to the top or to the bottom; hers is an indiscriminate power. She can destroy or enrich men's lives, but she cannot choose or favor. Burne-Jones's portrayal of her adds a deeper layer to the myth; her beauty and her blind indifference to the viewer and to the men give her an almost callous, merciless power. Burne-Jones turns her vulnerability — she can be seen, though she herself cannot see — into strength and dominance, and he depicts the vulnerability of men to desire. Whether they desire wealth or love, the men's fates depend on the woman at the wheel.
1. Burne-Jones uses a limited range of muted colors, mainly browns. What effect does this have on the painting and its mood?
2. Is there significance to Burne-Jones's choice and order of slave, king, and poet on the wheel?
3. Burne-Jones depicts female beauty at work in different ways in his paintings. How does the aspect of female beauty he shows here compare to that in The Mirror of Venus? In Venus Epithalamia? In The Heart of the Rose?
4. How does the "psychology of love" come through in this painting?
Last modified 29 October 2004