Venus would seem to present an ideal subject for an artist. The Classical goddess of beauty and love, Venus provides an avenue for artists to explore conceptions of aesthetics and sexuality from the ideal woman to the femme fatale. A number of representations of the goddess appear in Pre-Raphaelite painting, particularly in the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, which began around 1860 with the exchange of ideas between William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones and developed into part of the Aesthetic Movement (Wood 94). Some of these paintings of Venus include Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Astarte Syriaca and Venus Verticordia, Sidney Harold Meteyard's Venus and Mars, and John Collier's In the Venusberg. These paintings tend to focus on the corporeal aspects of the goddess; her voluptuous figure or sensuous coloring seems to seduce either the viewer or a love object in the painting. The title of Rossetti's Venus Verticordia, or "Venus, turner of [men's] hearts" (The Walker) perfectly exemplifies this view of the goddess.
The Venus paintings of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-98) provide notable exceptions. Despite great variations in composition, mood, and the extent to which he draws from myth, Burne-Jones consistently paints Venus not with a seductive look, but with an averted, reflective gaze. Venus seems to provide Burne-Jones with a variety of means to explore the enduring importance of beauty in art. His Venus Rising from the Sea, Venus Epithalamia, Laus Veneris, and The Mirror of Venus all employ Venus of both myth and imagination as this lasting embodiment of the aesthetic.
In Venus Rising From the Sea (c. 1870), Burne-Jones depicts the detached and solitary figure of Venus that would feature prominently in his other works on the subject. The artist creates this sense of aloofness about the goddess by painting his figure -- solid and calm -- and the background — ever-changing and rough — quite differently. The background, a vague suggestion of the sea from which Venus rose, serves to emphasize this moment of flux as Venus experiences her first instants in the world. The softness of the smudged background, with its blurred, white-capped waves, suggests a sea just relinquishing the body of Venus. Similarly, her hair (its shortness a move away from the "fair ladies" of Burne-Jones' mentor, Dante Gabriel Rossetti) blows away from her face, hinting at the wind disturbing it. The wind and waves presumably also blur the garland in her hand. Finally, Venus' stretching pose is reminiscent of a woman just waking up, which, of course, is precisely what Venus is doing in her birth from the sea.
Venus' body and face, however, stand in significant contrast to the background. Burne-Jones outlines her nude body in strong, unwavering lines, and she thus seems completely distinct and almost pasted onto the swirling sea behind her. Her face demonstrates similar placidity, despite the great change that has occurred around her and to her. She gazes out of the canvas and away from the viewer, demonstrating her detachment from the mortal world due to her extraordinary birth. This distance recalls Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, a plausible influence as Burne-Jones admired Botticelli (Wood 119). Her facial features (in particular the delicate nose and other soft lines in the face) in fact resemble Botticelli's work more closely than Pre-Raphaelite portraits of beautiful women with strong facial features, such as Rossetti's Lady Lilith, or, even earlier, Millais' Portrait of a Girl (Sophie Gray). Overall, Burne-Jones paints Venus as the sole focus of the canvas and as an eternal figure against a changing mortal world.
Of all of Burne-Jones' paintings of Venus, this work demonstrates the greatest faithfulness to the mythical situation. The Sotheby's Catalogue also notes that the subject matter for this painting may have been taken from Burne-Jones' work illustrating "The Story of Cupid and Psyche" from The Earthly Paradise -- his friend William Morris' poetic rendering of both Greek and Nordic myths. The main point of commonality between this section of the poem is that of Venus' extraordinary beauty, a quality that leaves her as solitary as she appears in the painting; as Morris describes Venus,
. . . she,
If honored as a goddess, certainly
Was dreaded as a goddess none the less,
And midst her wealth, dwelt long in loneliness. (5)
Morris, however, makes little reference to the scene Burne-Jones depicts in Venus Rising From the Sea. At one point, Morris does mention the "unquiet sea" (61) from which Venus emerged, but Morris focuses primarily upon Venus' cruelty as she observes that Psyche's beauty rivals her own. It thus appears that Burne-Jones loosely looked toward Morris' work for inspiration, as he also did in his Perseus Cycle. It is notable, then, that the artist chose to emphasize the placid and unchanging Venus that would later appear in other works of his own accord.
In Venus Epithalamia (1871), Burne-Jones continues to paint from myth but chooses a considerably darker story to portray, that of Venus' unfortunate marriage to Vulcan (Waters 45). Though Venus here retains the averted gaze present in all the Venus paintings, she seems also to lose her agency and become vulnerable to the viewer's gaze. Burne-Jones paints Venus nude and with a generally similar figure to Venus Rising From the Sea from the previous year. Again, the artist uses strong lines to outline the legs, torso and arms. The curves of the body (in part due to Venus' leaning pose), however, constitute the main difference between the two nude figures. In the later painting, the darkness of the wood behind her light, muted gold figure serves to emphasize the distinct curve of her lower legs and waist. Where her curving body contrasts with or extends past the straight lines of the architecture behind her (as around the area of her hip and waist) provides another means of emphasizing her figure. Finally, Burne-Jones paints her neck with a significant curve as well, allowing Venus to look not past the viewer as in Venus Rising From the Sea, but downward, as if defeated. The sensuality these curving lines impart creates a wholly different Venus from that of the other painting. One senses that Burne-Jones no longer paints Venus nude because she hast just entered this world but because she has become a sensuous being; however, her resistance to the scene around her differentiates her from, for example, Rossetti's seductive Venuses. Through this detachment Burne-Jones emphasizes instead the tragic nature of great beauty.
Venus does not derive power from her rather sexual pose in Venus Epithalamia. Several aspects of Venus' spatial positioning in the painting place her figure in an exposed position. First, Burne-Jones' composition pushes her body up against the extreme foreground of the canvas. Venus leans against a door frame, her body encompassing the length (and almost the width) of approximately the first third of the painting. The rest of the action in the scene takes place much further away, as Burne-Jones depicts most of the other figures as framed by a doorway in the background and leaves empty space in the painting's middle. This composition effectively restricts the view of all the figures, except for Venus, who remains exposed.
Secondly, Venus becomes as a piece of art to be looked upon. Her smooth, gold tinted figure resembles that of a marble statute. A stream of light highlights her lower leg, and thus draws the viewer's eye, though her face remains in shadow. The way in which Burne-Jones molds the lines of Venus' right arm (i.e., the viewer's left), curved neck and flowing hair to the lines of the wall behind her also make her appear as a decorative pillar, supporting the ceiling above her. Finally, her placement next to a small statute of a blindfolded Cupid (Waters 45) creates the sense that she too exists as a decorative object. This absorption into the surrounding architecture invites not a reverential gaze on the part of the viewer but rather an examining and objectifying one.
The vulnerability Burne-Jones portrays in this canvas relates, of course, to the myth of Venus' marriage. In the myth, Venus enters into an unhappy marriage with Vulcan, only to fall in love with Mars. Waters notes as well the parallel to Burne-Jones' lover Maria Zambaco's life; she entered a marriage during which she fell in love with the artist, though their affair disintegrated soon after (45). The exposed and isolated position in which Burne-Jones places Venus, as well as her downcast expression, allow the viewer to glimpse the pain of unhappy love. Here, the artist uses both a mythical premise and Venus' solitude in the painting to represent the darker, sadder moments beauty can produce.
The next of Burne-Jones' paintings of Venus, Laus Veneris, returns to a vision of Venus as a powerful goddess able to exhibit her detachment from the world around her, though, in this work, this removal seems also a sign of decadent languor. Burne-Jones foreground the malaise of Venus and her attendants by creating a distinct contrast between the action he depicts in the background tapestries and the lack of action on the part of his figures in the foreground. This tapestry interestingly displays several myths in which Venus takes part. On the far left part of the tapestry, Cupid flanks a nude Venus, either swathed in clouds or rising from the sea. Unlike Burne-Jones' own Venus Rising From the Sea, Venus has long, blond hair in a more typical Pre-Raphaelite style. On the right side of the tapestry, Burne-Jones paints Venus (denoted by a small sign bearing her name) with the same body type and flowing blond hair but dressed in gold and riding a chariot pulled by 3 doves. Cupid again appears in this scene with his red wings shooting in front of Venus, as adoring people hand her apples. Burne-Jones creates only one means of relief from the crowded background: a window that provides a view of some empty space, though one can also see five knights, some of whom look into the room. One can also see this technique in his The Golden Stairs (1880) and The Doom Fulfilled (1888).
Burne-Jones paints the figures in the foreground in a similar rich color scheme of dark reds and blues and the flattened depth of the painting makes the figures appear as if they are part of the tapestry itself (Tate Gallery 230); however, these figures have abandoned any of the active roles Venus adopted in the tapestry representations of the myths. Venus herself reclines, pale and with distant gaze, against the tapestry representation of her more vibrant self. The red of her flowing dress is more striking even than the reds of the tapestry but looks almost inappropriately bright against her pale skin and long, rather dull, brown hair. She has apparently taken off a crown, which now rests on her lap, and has let a pink rose fall beneath her chair. These details present a Venus that seems almost like a tree in autumn -- shedding the emblems of her life and power around her.
Her attendants complete the languorous scene. The four women cluster around sheet music in front of the window. Their strong jawlines and noses reflect the Rossettian attitude toward female beauty, but the pallor and blankness of their faces suggests an extreme boredom. One, with her back to the viewer, turns the music, while the others do not play but rather gaze vacantly out of the canvas; upon first glance, it seems that they look toward the viewer, but their gazes are slightly askance, seeming to almost disdain the viewer. A horn lies at one of their feet, further adding to the tone of wasteful lethargy.
In Laus Veneris Burne-Jones sets up a complex interaction between the mythical representations of Venus and a woman who seems to possess the power and beauty of the goddess but belongs to a different time. The clothing and presence of the knight suggest a medieval setting, yet the tapestries introduce the mythical. This tension between Venus as mythical goddess and Venus as a possible allegorical figure or figure from a different era also exists in Swinburne's poem of the same name. The Tate Gallery catalogue on the Pre-Raphaelites suggests a connection between Burne-Jones' and Swinburne's works:
[Burne-Jones finished a water-color version of Laus Veneris as Swinburne started his poem, but] Burne-Jones's choice of subject is so Swinburnian that poem and picture were clearly twin expressions of shared ideas; this was, after all, the moment when the two men were particularly close. [Tate Gallery 230]
By "Swinburnian," the writers of the catalogue presumably mean an emphasis upon the sensual and erotic that reverberates throughout the poet's work in such poems as "Dolores" and "Anactoria."
In "Laus Veneris" Swinburne borrows from the TannhŠuser legend (Swinburne 326), in which a Christian knight falls in love with Venus, much to the fury of the Pope, who demands the knight's repentance. Thus, the poem necessarily concerns both a reverence for the goddess' power and a sensual relationship with her, as well as a mix of the Classical and the Medieval. Swinburne's Venus begins in the poem as the passive, almost lifeless woman of Burne-Jones' painting:
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. [Swinburne Lines 1-4]
Swinburne thus presents an eroticized, yet distant, Venus. In her death-like slumber, the speaker is able to watch her and know intimately the landscape of her body. Later in the poem, however, Venus' dominance of men receives great attention from the poet; the following lines serve as one example: "There is the knight Adonis that was slain;/ With flesh and blood she chains him for a chain" (Lines 133-4). This description points to the all-powerful Venus of myth. Venus acts as the speaker's lover (he seems to be the only man able to approach her) but also as the literal goddess who "came out of the naked sea" (Swinburne Line 390). The phrase "the knight Adonis" also combines this interest in combining the Medieval and the Classical found in the original legend. Burne-Jones' paintings clearly shares an interest in the roles for Venus as a goddess and as an allegory for a latter-day woman. In Laus Veneris, then, Burne-Jones seems to explore the decadent power of beauty and brings Venus into more of an earthly role than any of the other paintings.
In The Mirror of Venus (1898), Burne-Jones abandons any mythical premise for the painting; instead, he places the scene in an unrecognizable landscape and focuses on the beauty of Venus and the other nine women present in the painting. The sparseness of the background allows the viewer to focus on the figures. A brown, rocky stretch of land extends behind the women. Two equally rocky hills and a clump of bare and yellow trees punctuate the landscape. The sky lightens toward the horizon visible at the center of the painting's background, drawing the viewer's eye and making her aware of the endlessness of the landscape (and, consequently, its eternal presence). Little vital-looking natural life exists in the scene; only small blue flowers and moss, which surround Venus and the other women, as if the goddess engenders beauty and vitality wherever she stands.
Burne-Jones manages in The Mirror of Venus to paint a large number of clustered figures without diminishing this open background space in the way that, for example, the crowded composition of Laus Veneris does. In this work, the nine women gazing into a reflective pool surround a standing Venus. The artist skillfully paints these women in a variety of poses -- from kneeling directly over the pool to bending slightly toward its waters. Their dress also exhibits intricate variety. In a range of rust reds, deep blues and greens, Burne-Jones drapes his figures in beautifully folded "pseudo-classical" clothing (Wood 119). The colors of their clothing and their primarily kneeling poses seem to connect them solidly to the earth. As Wood also notes, Burne-Jones pairs the classical clothing with figures whose "sweetness and elegance...recall the Italian Renaissance" (119). Their faces, however, evoke the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of the strong chin and nose and exhibit little individuation from one another. The most striking element of the figures, however, are their gazes. All wear an expression of rapt concern directed either at their own reflection in the pool or at Venus. The wistful intensity of these looks primarily creates the mood of longing in the painting.
Burne-Jones clearly differentiates this Venus from the kneeling women. Whereas many of the other figures' heads reach a consistent height (creating a type of horizon in the foreground), Venus towers above them, recalling the strength of the hills and slender trees that rise from the rocky background. Venus also wears a much lighter garment than her attendants (though of the same style), distinguishing her figure not only from the other women but also from the primarily brown background. While the other women seem tied to the earth in both color and pose, Venus appears wholly other-worldly, her light, wavy hair and pose again more closely recalling Botticelli's reverential view of the goddess than the woman the artist painted in Laus Veneris. Venus' gaze similarly reinforces her distance from the scene. She does not meet the glances of the other women, nor does she look at her own reflection.
Venus' distracted gaze and the women's directed ones point to the primary concern of the painting, the appreciation of beauty. Christopher Wood notes the focus on the conveying beauty in the painting:
The conception is purely aesthetic -- a ring of beautiful girls in lovely draperies, with the minimum of narrative or historical content . . . A picture such as The Mirror of Venus is above all intended to be beautiful, and to appeal to the poetic imagination of the spectator. 
Instead of creating a painting that revolves around a particular myth, Burne-Jones centers this painting around the act of observing the beautiful. In naming the painting The Mirror of Venus, Burne-Jones indicates that what the pool reflects has to do the love and beauty Venus represents. In this mirror, each woman sees her own beauty as it appears for a moment, or at Venus, whose beauty lasts eternally. No matter whom the women observe, they see a representation of beauty. Their act of looking echoes the viewer's appreciation of the painting's beauty itself; as the women look at themselves in the pool or at Venus, we, the viewers, look upon Burne-Jones' work.
Burne-Jones excludes only Venus from this act of observing. Lily pads obscure her reflection in the pool and she does not look at any of the women, or at the viewer. Burne-Jones perhaps sets Venus apart in this manner due to her immortality. Unlike the mortal women, and unlike the viewer as well, Venus stands perpetually as a symbol of the beautiful. Here, Burne-Jones seems to reach the core of why Venus stands apart in all of his paintings; her beauty has the same status of beauty in art — eternal.
"I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in light better than any light that ever shone — in a land no-one can define, or remember, only desire..." (Edward Burne-Jones, as quoted by Wood 119). Venus Rising From the Sea,
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Morris, William. The Earthly Paradise. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903.
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"Venus and Mars by Sidney Harold Meteyard." The Victorian Web. Viewed 15 December, 2004.
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 23.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, Cassell & Co, 2000.
Last modified 17 May 2007