lthough steps figure prominently in both Sir Edward Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs (1880) and John William Waterhouse's Diogenes (1882), they function quite differently in each painting. The first painting's title emphasizes the stairs, and its long, narrow vertical canvas makes them play a central part in the scene. The arc of the stairs — solid and unmoving — provides a backbone in the painting. This firm line balances the strongly suggested, yet almost flickering line created by the women who move down the stairs. By means of hands resting on shoulders, necks craning in the direction of other figures, arms and knees bent to the same degree beside each other, and a graceful overlapping of bodies, the figures on the stairs lead the viewer's eye from the upper left of the painting, down the stairs, and finally to the lower right-hand corner. The rhythmic, fluid movements and interactions of Burne-Jones's female figures seem almost to grow out of the curving staircase.
By contrast, the three women on the steps in Diogenes do not mirror the lines of the stairs, but rather move in opposition to the rigid and heavy linearity of the steps. The highest woman, holding a parasol, leans forward slightly and stretches one arm backwards, creating curving lines that are neither parallel nor sharply perpendicular to the stairs. The middle woman, though leaning at an angle that slightly follows the stone banister, bends her elbow in way that sharply breaks the rhythm of the stairs. The back of the lowest woman, who leans forward, creates a diagonal line that points toward a parasol in the upper right of the painting, rather than towards the temple and two trees as the stairs do. Thus, Waterhouse's stairs provide a platform on which to arrange the figures at different levels, rather than a unifying structure in the painting. Furthermore, they allow the brightly lit young women to literally and figuratively look down upon the elderly philosopher Diogenes who sits, deeply in shadow, in his tub. The position of these women in the airy, elevated space of the steps contrasts sharply with the enclosed, seclusion of Diogenes within the tub and bordered on two sides by stone walls.
Left: Hylas and the Nymphs by J. W. Waterhouse.
Right: Perseus and the Graiae by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.Many of Waterhouse's paintings containing multiple women seem to imitate the fluid arrangements of Burne-Jones's women (for example, the women in Waterhouse's The Danaides or Hylas and the Nymphs when compared with the Graiaie or the sea nymphs in Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle). These compositions of poses not only create beautiful forms, but also often suggest a sense of sisterhood and unity among the women. Waterhouse spatially separates the woman at the bottom of the stairs in Diogenes from the other two, and the poses of the three do not link them to the same extent as the poses some other Waterhouse and Burne-Jones paintings. Despite this lowest figure's separation, is it nonetheless implied that she is part of their unit? Or does her position seem to suggest sympathy for or identification with the isolated philosopher?
Do the poses of these figures in relation to each other reflect Burne-Jones's influence, or do they appear to depart from his model?
The stairs in Diogenes seem to create a platform from which to scorn someone who is below it; what significance might the stairs in The Golden Stairs have? Are there any religious symbols in the painting to indicate that they represent stairs to heaven, or does their function seem to be primarily aesthetic?
What evidence is there in Diogenesof Burne-Jones's influence on Waterhouse, aside from the arguable connection between the poses of the figures?
Last modified 5 November 2004