To characterize the space in every painting that Sir Edward Burne-Jones painted requires a lengthy dissertation; yet it is possible to characterize the space in his paintings generally while at the same time understanding that his style developed from his experience as a young D.G. Rossetti disciple, to a national hero of the aesthetic movement, and that not every one of his paintings follows all of the general rules. Upon first glance at his work it is clear that Burne-Jones' paintings follow five basic patterns, they
- are architecturally complex in structure and depth,
- draw on classical subject matter, that determines a museum-like quality to the space,
- produce a dreamlike moment in time,
- express, along with other Pre-Raphaelite painters, a tactile quality in the visual realm,
- usually portray an elongated, isolated female at their narrative center.
Burne-Jones draws the viewer into a dialogue with his main characters, always drawn in the foreground of the visual space, by setting the main figure against some kind of hallway in the background indicating a privileged moment or glimpse for the viewer. Some later examples of this technique are thrice found in King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884) where a determined view of exterior castle walls are glimpsed just above the maid's head, The Golden Stairs(1880) where not one but eighteen elongated females are brilliantly placed on a circular, decidedly architectural staircase leading to a hall of columns, and in Danae and the Brazen Tower(1887) where Danae is shadowed by a cypress tree (which is effectively mocks her stature) and is doubly framed by an arched recess of space on the left and a rectangular recess on the right. Even in his early watercolor Sidonia von Bork (1860) we see the intricate dress of Sidonia as the subject of the painting while the Duchess of Wolgast is small and in the background framed by a doorway in the upper right hand corner. How might we clearly articulate the effect of this composition?
Often, the effect of these tall, lengthy women in flowing robes emphasizes a longitudinal gaze at the picture and combined with their statuesque beauty reflected in the architecture, creates a space full of grace. The notion of grace, that develops with the Burne-Jones depiction of space is not fully a virtue coming from God, but a threefold definition: the display of charming, attractive traits or characteristics in line, proportion and movement; ease and suppleness of movement or bearing; and the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful (paraphrased from Merriam Webster). How would the absence of architectural elements change this interpretation of spatial grace in the picture?
The poses of these female subjects are static and frozen, the stillness of their body language is contemplative and this saturates the space around them. As Meyer Shapiro reminds us:
For the aesthetic eye the body, and indeed any object, seems to incorporate the empty space around it as a field of existence. The participation of the surrounding void in the image-sign of the body is still more evident where several figures are presented; then the intervals between them produce a rhythm of body and void and determine effects of intimacy, encroachment and isolation, like the intervals of space in an actual human group. [Shapiro, 229]
In King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid the boys reading on the railing above have some movement in their pose, but the maid is frozen and it is from her body language that we interpret the space of the painting. The same is true for The Heart Desires(1875-1878), the image-sign of the main character claims the space as contemplative and classical. Does the space represented in these two paintings evoke ideas that are usually only found in a museum? (Meyer Schapiro).
The overall space in his paintings is a crowded or closed meaningful social space that is informed by a sense of touch. The grass covering the ground in The Baleful Head (1886-87) almost calls out to be touched by the hand of the viewer and the two figures around the well are pushed towards the viewer by the apple tree behind them. Burne-Jones describes his definition of a picture:
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. [Wood, 119]
What is the effect of these three elements together: (1) crowdedness (2) touchable objects and (3) dreamlike space? Compare this to Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents.
Schapiro, Meyer. "On some problems in the semiotics of visual art: field and vehicle in image-signs," Semiotica 1 (1969): 223-242.
Last modified 26 October 2004