In Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1898), the artist creates a dream-like, almost supernatural setting and scene in which he attempts to provoke both contemplation and emotion in the viewer. Upon first glance, the situation of the work appears simplistic in its aesthetically pleasing nature. Burne-Jones simply presents the viewer with ten beautiful girls or women here, most of whom look at their reflections in a pond full of water and lily pads. The artist does not create a scene of complex action, but instead one of passivity, thoughtfulness, and emotion. The only significant complexity of the scene lies in each girl's emotional reaction to the particular image that she views. While many of them look longingly into their own reflections, some appear indifferent, some happy and one or two even seem discontent with her own image as it appears before them. Still others, however, do not even glance at their own likeness at all. Burne-Jones chooses instead subtly to complicate the scene by drawing these exceptions' attention to the tall girl draped in blue. Perhaps the most striking element of the painting as a whole, this girl calls to mind the stance, type, and expression of Boticelli's Venus in The Birth of Venus of 1485. Rather than crouching down to view her image in the water, this figure stands and attracts the gaze of not only the viewer, but also the girl to her left and the seated girl at the far right of the composition. The difference in these two girls' expressions in looking upon her acts as a noteworthy complication. While the girl at her left looks up to her face in admiration of her beauty, the seated girl looks to her with an expression that the viewer reads as jealousy and perhaps annoyance. Here, Burne-Jones presents not only a dream-like scene in which beautiful girls look at their reflection in contemplation and narcissism, but also one that contains realistic human and social complexities. Because not everyone can be satisfied with his or her own beauty, some must look instead to that of others either in reverence or in envy.
1. What effect does Burne-Jones's use of the otherworldly, rocky landscape present here have on the work as a whole? Does he simply employ this setting to call to mind the style of Renaissance painting such as that of Leonardo Da Vinci (present in the background of his Jaconde, The Virgin of the Rocks and other works) or does Burne-Jones have further meaning or purpose in doing so?
2. Why did Burne-Jones choose the title that he did for this painting? Does he perhaps mean to imply that the central figure of the standing girl in blue is actually Venus herself or perhaps just an embodiment of beauty in general? Could the title instead be completely allegorical?
3. How does Burne-Jones compare to other artists such as Millais or Hunt in terms of detail and color? Does this work by Burne-Jones provide any evidence of a shift away from the brightness and detailed precision in depictions of other, earlier Pre-Raphaelite art? If so, what reasons might you attribute this change to?
4. How do these girls in the painting compare with the female figure in Rossetti's Lady Lilith? Do each of their gazes and/or expressions invite the outside viewer's gaze? Do any of the ten girls here seem to some extent more akin to the "Fair Lady" figure of Lady Lilith? If so, which and why?
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