Edward Burne-Jones' Souls on the Banks of the River Styx (1873) presents the viewer with this "the land of naught at all" of Hades from Virgil's Ænied (Morris' translation). The lightest part of the painting- the souls in the foreground waiting to cross into the land of the dead- first attracts the eye. Burne-Jones paints these figures in muted whites and grays (and the occasional tinge of yellow) that nonetheless appear stark against the dark background. Burne-Jones clearly and realistically outlines their muscles, yet each figure remains faceless. These figures hunch over and either clutch themselves or their fellow souls, suggesting that they are cold, frightened, or lost (Waters also notes the similarity of two of these figures to Watts' portrayal of the doomed lovers in Orpheus and Eurydice). The clumps of these figures draw the viewer's eye from one group to another, back to the barely discernable couple in the distance. This movement ever toward the distance inherent in the painting's composition creates a feeling of boundless space.
Despite the pervasive darkness of the painting's background, it has, upon closer inspection, significant detail. The souls stand upon greenish-gray strips of land, while their reflections shimmer in the still water of the Styx below. Thick fog obscures the empty space at the painting's center, while thin mist lightens the darkness above the souls. The shore that the figures look toward in the Ænied remains unseen in the painting. In essence, however, only two entities comprise the painting — the souls and the murky space in which they find themselves lost.
1. Bill Waters asserts that Burne-Jones' inspiration for this painting lies in Virgil's Ænied. The figures' bent poses in the painting, however, look very different from the "mighty crowd" "With hands stretched out for utter love of that far-flying shore" in the Ænied (Morris' translation). What effect does Burne-Jones' departure from the poem produce?
2. Waters also theorizes that Burne-Jones' paintings reflect his feelings about love at that point in his life and that, as such, Souls on the Banks of the River Styx demonstrates Burne-Jones' unhappiness after the end of his affair with Maria Zambaco. What type of afterlife, particularly for lovers, does this painting present? How does this depiction of the afterlife compare to that of Christina Rossetti at various points in her poetic career?
3. Burne-Jones' figures in this painting are both anatomically accurate and largely androgynous, distinctly human and faceless. What techniques does Burne-Jones employ in painting these figures and would impression of the soul do they impart?
4. Burne-Jones's use of background space appears to be very different from that of his other oil paintings; The Beguiling of Merlin from about the same period features a lush, natural background, while the paintings in the Pygmalion cycle have structured interiors as backgrounds, for example. How does Burne-Jones use space in Souls on the Banks of the River Styx to create meaning differently than he does in his other paintings? How effective is this technique?
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.
Last modified 26 October 2004