Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones', The Mirror of Venus blends aesthetic techniques from both the Pre-Raphaelite school and Italian Renaissance paintings. Burne-Jones utilizes the familiar color palette of the PRB, the clothing, landscape and figures painted in rich, dense shades of red, blue and earthly tones. His expertise for depicting landscape becomes evident in the carefully detailed depiction of the vast horizon. The landscape and the colors convey heaviness and weight to the mood of the painting, echoing a pervading sense of nostalgia. The figures, painted in the Renaissance style, though, contrast with the naturalistic landscape and the work of other PRB members.
Burne-Jones ignores anatomical rules of proportion, opting instead for a classical ideal of the beautiful womanly figure. The women wear classical draperies, the folds and angles of cloth and the poses and shapes of their bodies, ignoring established rules regarding gravity and anatomy, instead appearing pulled out of Italian Botticelli-esque sculpture and painting. The imaginary scene of a ring of women gazing longingly at their own reflections lacks the narrative content familiar in PRB works. Burne-Jones seems more concerned with establishing mood than incorporating symbolic or historical content. The careful attention paid to the interaction between the different figures, their positioning and facial expressions still conveys strong feelings despite the lack of clear narrative. Without specific reasons noted, the figures exude intense sadness and sense of loss, a familiar theme of PRB paintings. The slight touches and exchanges between the ten women create tension and energy that flows circularly throughout the ring made between the women and the pond. Also, their energy and presence multiplies through the reflections of their faces in the water. The melding of aesthetics from the PRB school and images familiar in Renaissance works creates a neo-classical style controversial to Burne-Jones' contemporaries who were quick to criticize his willingness to experiment and mix different styles.
1. The neo-classical figures allow for an ancient mythological interpretation to the characters, a common theme in Renaissance art, instead of the ecclesiastically religious themes popular in PRB works. According to mythology, the women have come to the pond to find beauty, instilled in the pond by Venus/Aphrodite. If this is the case, why is the mood so somber?
2. Burne-Jones was, like many of the other PRB painters, tortured by a loss of love and the trauma of his mistress' attempted suicide. How did this affect his depiction of women in his paintings?
3. Religious symbolism does not seem apparent in this work. Are there other symbols that should be considered?
4. It seemed in other PRB works that the ideal of beauty had shifted away from classical depictions of form. Why would Burne-Jones have reverted back to Renaissance ideals?
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.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 26 October 2004