Sir Edward Burne-Jones spent the last twenty years of his life working on his final masterpiece The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon started in 1881 and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1898. He wrote of it "Avalon is my chief dream now and I think I can put into it all I most care for." The painting stands over 9 feet high and 21 feet wide, which is a testament to its importance for the painter who started the project as a small commission and later refused to part with it.
The painting depicts a moment of stillness and inaction. King Arthur lies on a bench with mortal wounds while three queens and numerous attendants watch in suspense for a summons from above; a call that will awaken him to perform more acts of faith. The background is overwhelmingly architectural with a marble canopy bathed in light hanging just over Arthur's body, depicting the legend of the Holy Grail. Two extended colonnades on the right and left frame the center narrative with black marble columns and eastern inspired capitals; the architecture itself doubly framed by external castle walls of medieval influence and a garden filled with trees and flowers. The group of eight women who directly surround his body have long braided hair, forever a symbol of sexuality, and are bejeweled in large stone-inlay crowns of typical aesthetic (or is it decadent?) decoration with Byzantine influence.
1. Critics have speculated that Burne-Jones thought of himself as King Author, in that he loved to be surrounded by women and was by the 1880s facing his own death. Is it reasonable to assume Burne-Jones was making a semi-imaginary biographical statement with this masterpiece?
2. In terms of the architecture depicted in The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, what other painting in the oeuvre of Burn-Jones makes the best comparison? In terms of subject matter, which D.G. Rossetti painting creates a similar moment in mythic time?
3. After spending twenty years on a painting and pouring all of his ideals into it, what do we know about the beliefs Burne-Jones held?
4. What was so appealing to him about the Arthurian legends? What elements did they offer to Burne-Jones that other stories did not?
Bibliographical note: I have taken factual information taken from Wood and narrative facts from Harrison and Waters.
Wood, Christopher. The Life and Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.
Harrison, Martin, and Bill Waters. Burne-Jones. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1973.
Last modified 5 November 2004