Waterhouse and Pre-Raphaelite Style
Waterhouse’s “I am Half Sick of Shadows — said the Lady of Shallot” portrays the heroine of Tennyson’s poem lamenting her confinement. True to the poem, the lady is positioned at her loom, weaving “A magic web of colours gay” and looking at the world via the reflection in the mirror (Tennyson). Waterhouse places the mirror prominently in the center of the wall behind the Lady of Shalott and painting quickly becomes claustrophobic as the onlooker realizes that the scene behind the woman is a mirror rather than a real window. She seems to be squeezed in between her loom and the edge of the painting and her stretching posture expresses her disquiet, frustration, and desire to escape. Tennyson’s poem contains the same claustrophobia:
Four gray walls, and four gray towers, Overlook a space of flowers And the silent isle imbowers The Lady of Shalott.
Here, the contrast between the grey stone and the vibrant flowers outside heightens the Lady’s isolation from the living world. In the mirror we see the reflection of a pair of lovers walking, and also possibly a knight on horseback (Sir Launcelot) and thus the view symbolizes the love denied by the curse of confinement. Sir John Everett Millais’ Mariana tells a similar story, also inspired by a poem by Tennyson. Mariana suffers from the absence of love and waits in the “lonely moated grange” for her lover:
With blackest moss and flower-pots Were thickly crusted, one and all; The rusted nails fell from the knots That held the pear to the gable-wall (Tennyson).
The four lines that begin the poem thus set a scene of lifelessness; everything around Mariana crumbles while she is motionless. In fact living matter is literally decomposing and engulfed in damp moss in Mariana’s world. There are no active verbs in this description, accentuating the decay of the scene. Again, Mariana is a lady in an enclosed space like the Lady of Shalott, a woman seemingly “resigned to her fate,” and an embodiment of sexual frustration (Nunn 55). The figure of Mariana is pushed close to the front of the painting and the claustrophobia of the scene is heightened by the patterned wall that seems to blend with the view from the window — indeed, the prominent stained glass which obscures most of the window gives an even greater feeling of isolation. The outside world is literally obscured, and the mass of leaves and branches that are in view seem to advance towards the window, providing even more claustrophobia, and Mariana appears to be stretching from boredom and frustration as she stands up from her work. The signature refrains of these two women are interchangeable; we can hear Mariana exclaim, “I am half sick of shadows” just as we can hear the Lady of Shalott lament, “I am aweary, aweary/ I would that I were dead!”
Both Millais and Waterhouse took the poetic representation of the repressed woman, and turned it into a vivid painting. The detail of Mariana’s table, and the minute additions to the composition such as the leaves scattered both on her embroidery and across the floor, contribute to the realism of the scene. In parallel, the Lady of Shallot’s loom and the spools of colored thread at her feet show that Waterhouse, too, tried to make his domestic scene as detailed and realistic as possible. In addition, the medieval dress of both the Lady of Shallot and Mariana, although different colors and slightly different styles, accentuates the round figures of the women due to the low slung belts and heightens the sensuality of their stretching poses. Millais and Waterhouse provide a clear depiction of repressed sexuality.
Despite the overwhelming similarities between these paintings in terms of both subject matter and outward style, we must remember that Waterhouse painted his version of the Lady of Shalott in 1915, whereas Millais’ painting of Mariana was produced in 1851, right in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s active association. In 1848, three young Royal Academy students — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt — founded this secret Brotherhood. The trio were very young and eager artists, and collectively decided to pay greater attention to nature and honesty in their work. In their appeal to nature, the Brotherhood exhibits a reaction against the industrialization of Europe, and thus the Pre-Raphaelite Movement grows out of the Romanticism of the Early 19th Century; they wished to paint realistic scenes in the vibrant colors of life and nature. In Christ in the House of His Parents, Millais most certainly emphasizes the reality of his religious subject. The dirty carpenters shop, complete with wood shavings piled on the floor, coupled with the real, even ugly faces of the family of Jesus are startling to a viewer accustomed to sterilized, idealistic representations of the holy family. Indeed, Christ as carpenter seems to be quite the opposite of the common view of Christ as a king.
Yet, the Brotherhood officially came to an end in 1853, with each member following his own trajectory. A sonnet by Christina Rossetti’s sums up the scattering of the P.R.B as follows:
Hunt is yearning for the land of Cheops; D.G Rossetti shuns the vulgar optic… And he at last the champion great Millais, Attaining academic opulence, Winds up his signature with A.R.A. So rivers merge in the perpetual sea; So luscious fruit must fall when over-ripe; And so consummated the P.R.B. (Barringer 135)
Hunt indeed traveled to the Middle East where he continued to paint; Rossetti rejected realism (the “vulgar optic”) in favor of a dreamy vision of Medieval romance, and Millais entered the establishment of the Royal Academy, forfeiting his status as a radical. The paintings and ideals of the PRB, then, can be seen as a series of prototypes and points of contrast for what would become a multiplicity of interrelated movements in the second half of the 19th Century, including the aesthetic movement and the classical movement.
At the end of the century we come across John William Waterhouse, a Late Victorian Romantic Painter, whose work displays the forces that shaped late Victorian art. His subjects range from classical, biblical, historical, and literary, and critics often note that a dreamy and romantic mood prevails in all of his work, despite the range of subject matter. As Christopher Wood writes in “Olympian Dreamers,” John William Waterhouse only had “one song to sing” yet he “sang it very beautifully” (224). In the following set of discussions, I will use Waterhouse’s work to explore the various trajectories of English art that grew from “The Germ” of the Pre-Raphaelites.
The Middle-Ages from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to John William Waterhouse
In addition to painting the Lady of Shalott, many of Waterhouse’s other works depict scenes from the era of the Middle Ages, spanning from the Arthurian age through the 14th Century. Fair Rosamund, for example, shows the mistress of Henry II waiting, presumably for her lover, looking out from a window. She, much like the Lady of Shalott, is pictured with a weaving of her fantasy: a chivalrous knight. It appears that the idea of weaving as a symbol of the waiting woman — a woman weaves to compensate for a stagnant life — is a dominant image in the tragedy of femininity in its reliance on men and romance. Interestingly, Rosamund’s weaving is complete and she now looks out in anticipation of romantic fulfillment. Unlike Millais’ depiction of Mariana, and Waterhouse’s portrayal of the Lady of Shalott at the loom, Rosamund seems to be much more interactive with the outside world; her veil blows in the wind, and she leans our from the window, instead of gazing at the walls of her own confinement.
The Middle Ages occupies a prominent position in the Victorian list of artistic subject matter. In the 1850s, Rossetti evokes a richly colorful, chivalric and nostalgic representation of the Middle Ages in a set of watercolor paintings inspired by the Morte d’Arthur and the works of Dante. In Victorian Painting, Treuherz notes that Rossetti turned to watercolors because he “lacked the technical facility” in oils possessed by Millais (100). However, Rossetti’s sketchy use of watercolor evokes a dream-like atmosphere, thus Rossetti’s choice of medium enhances these works. These fanciful representations are often claustrophobic, painted in “jewel-like colours” and highly decorative (Barringer 45). For example, in The Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra Rossetti’s composition is densely packed and the pictorial space is flattened with the figures placed in the same plane despite the three dimensional cues. These traits echo the conventions of the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. Interestingly, the line of bells appears in several illuminated manuscripts from the medieval Period, notably “The Hours of Isabelle of France” which was owned by Ruskin, an early friend of Rossetti. These bells also provide a link between music and visual art; it is as if we are supposed to hear the music surrounding the scene. Another version of The Wedding of St. George is framed by two trumpeters. Again, Rossetti expresses the relationship between “art and music, sight and sound” (Barringer 46).
In Waterhouse’s depictions of the medieval period, however, there seems to be an emphasis on the tragedy and danger of love, as opposed to mere nostalgia for the chivalry of the past. In Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion, we see the moment that leads to the tragic love triangle of Tristan, Isolde and King Mark. In this painting, the characterization of Isolde is more important than that of Tristan: her veil is blowing in the wind, and its white brightness puts her at the center of attention. Furthermore, Isolde’s face is illuminated while Tristan’s is in shadow. She leans forward slightly, whereas Tristan rests back on one leg. In short, Isolde is the expressive figure.
In Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca, we again see the fate of lovers in the Medieval Period, this time in the Italian setting inspired by Dante’s poetry. This story is linked with the English Middle Ages in that the lovers read (as depicted in the first of Rossetti’s three scenes) the Arthurian Romance of Launcelot and Guinivere, which inspires their own kiss:
One day, to pass the time away, we read of Lancelot — how love had overcome him. We were alone, and we suspected nothing.
And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale, and yet one point alone defeated us.
When we had read how the desired smile was kissed by one who was so true a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth. A Gallehault indeed, that book and he who wrote it, too; that day we read no more. (Dante)
The representation of medieval love became a popular subject in the years after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s existence. As Christopher Wood writes in Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolours, Anthony Frederick Sandys was one of Rossetti’s “most devoted followers” (42). Indeed, among his works are many medieval subjects such as Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor.
Queen Eleanor is a startlingly bright painting. Sandys technique is flawless in his creation of botanically accurate plants, echoing Pre-Raphaelite ideal of truth to nature. Furthermore, the composition of the painting, with the figure of Eleanor pushed up against the frame of view emphasizes her agency and Sandys captures her in mid-movement. Eleanor, the wife of Henry II is reputed to have murdered his mistress, Rosamund. Thus, Sandys depicts her carrying a dagger, a cup of poison, and the piece of red string that was supposed to lead Eleanor through a maze to reach Rosamund’s chamber. Her gaze, although averted, is purposeful and her red hair blowing in the wind echoes Rossetti’s portraits of feminine agency, such as the flame-haired “Helen of Troy” who played a large role in the motivation of the Trojan War.
Looking at La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Waterhouse, we clearly see a similar portrayal of the Medieval woman as a femme fatale. Here, a knight appears to be rescuing a beautiful maiden, yet upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the girl is in fact ensnaring him. She possesses an alluring and dangerously hypnotic beauty, giving her power over the epitome of masculinity and strength — the knight in armor. By comparing Waterhouse’s powerfully alluring women to those of Rossetti, such as “Helen of Troy” we can trace Waterhouse’s vivid portrayals of medieval romance, tragedy, and the femme fatale back to a Rossettian prototype.
Waterhouse and Classicism
Waterhouse’s subjects are clearly not limited to Medieval Subjects. Indeed, after 1890 he turned predominantly to classical subjects, many taken from Greek myth.
In Hylas and the Nymphs, Christopher Wood claims that Waterhouse achieved his “greatest classical picture” (Olympian Dreamers 224). Here, as for many of his medieval paintings, Waterhouse chooses a moment of feminine agency; in this case, the Nymphs lure Hylas into their lily pond. He is the victim to their desires, and as such Waterhouse subordinates him in the painting — Hylas faces away from the viewer, and the shadow cast across his face evokes a marked contrast with the illuminated faces and bodies of the Nymphs. Their hauntingly identical faces, and intensely dark and wide-eyed gazes, instill the girls with a dangerous sensuality.
Since Waterhouse dedicates himself to classical mythology, it seems appropriate that Christopher Wood writes that, “Among painters of the later Victorian and Edwardian periods, it was Waterhouse who made the greatest contribution to the classical movement” (Olympian Dreamers 224). The classical movement began in the 1860s as “a reaction against the predominance of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites” (15). It is important to know that Waterhouse was raised in Italy, and he is just one of many artists, such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema to name a few, with continental experience. Thus, it seems appropriate that in their work we see a renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance, and most importantly a fascination for “those great classical traditions that lay behind it” (21). Greek sculpture and classical myth became strong forces in the works of these artists and the classical movement also revived the nude that is markedly absent in Pre-Raphaelite work. As Wood observes, the classical movement “brought back the nude after its banishment in the mid-Victorian moral ice age” (Victorian Painting 50).
Yet, Waterhouse’s romantic, sensual and mysterious imagining of classical myth sets him apart from many other Olympian Dreamers. For instance, Frederic Lord Leighton, without whom “it would be difficult to argue that there was a classical movement at all,” exhibits a classicism that contrasts with that of Waterhouse (Olympian Dreamers 33). Leighton received his artistic education in continental Europe, in cities such as Berlin, Paris, Florence, Brussels and Rome. Thus it is easy to see how his style became “a completely personal fusion of Renaissance and classical traditions, overlaid with a sensibility and a colour sense that is entirely Victorian” (Olympain Dreamers 35). The luminous “Flaming June” is striking in its deliberate use of color: the shade of the woman’s robe blends with that of the sunset behind her, instilling the painting with a dreamy, other-worldly atmosphere. The subject is most clearly classical due to the style of dress and the composition of lady on a balcony with the open sea in the background. Yet the curled sleeping figure, and the way she is pushed close to the front of the painting, shows its Victorian origins.
Leighton, like Waterhouse, takes classical myth as subject matter, yet with very different results. In his vision of “Deadalus and Icarus” for example, the young Icarus stands in a graceful “self-consciously elegant pose,” and along with his dreamy gaze he seems to be meditating on his own beauty (Olympian Dreamers 50). At this point in the story, Deadalus fits his son with the fateful wings he so desires and I imagine that Waterhouse would have painted Icarus with an ambitious gleam in his eye, to echo the spirit of the story that is so closely associated with the dangers of curiosity and ambition. In Leighton’s painting, the contrast between the crouching darker skinned Daedalus and the light and smooth, posing Icarus, further heightens the effect that Icarus is not living, but a statue. In addition, the cloth billowing behind the statuesque figure looks far too contrived to be a spontaneous result of wind. It looks heavy and static, despite Leighton’s obvious attention to the details of the folds, hinting that Leighton probably painted the fabric resting on a solid surface, as opposed to actually blowing in the air. I agree with would in saying that his paintings are indeed “too academic and frigid” (Olympian Dreamers 51).
Similarly, even when the subject is a dangerous femme fatale, Leighton fails to achieve such characterization in terms of emotion and expression. For example, his portrait of Clytemnestra, who murders her own husband to avenge her daughter’s sacrifice, lacks any feeling. We can see how Leighton chose his composition and the pose of Clytemnestra carefully: she stands above the viewer, almost towering above us; she is a sturdy, formidable and statuesque figure. Yet her face is, for want of a better word, boring. Like Icarus, she looks like a lifeless statue; Leighton does not achieve the representation of a distraught mother plotting revenge.
I extend a similar reading to the works of Alma-Tadema who is named as one of the primary forces in the English classical movement, despite the fact that he is of Dutch origin rather than English. His pictures are exquisite in color and detail, for example, The Coign of Vantage depicts three ladies on an iridescent balcony, looking over the edge to the water far below. This painting uses perspective and distance dramatically, yet the ladies in the foreground are almost too perfect to be interesting. They have sweet, cherub-like faces, willing smiles, and they arrange themselves and their robes perfectly across the bright marble. In Leighton’s depictions of classical myth, and in Alma-Tadema’s scenes of classical life and leisure, the artists’ focus their concern on the beauty of the figures, rather than their inner characters.
It could be argued, however, that Waterhouse’s versions of classical myth are in fact deeply concerned with the beauty of the figures, in that he often depicts the non-violent parts of those tales that contain a highly dramatic or brutal phase. Looking at “St Eulalia,” the evasion of violence is most artfully achieved: the martyrdom of the young Spanish girl was an especially gruesome one, yet instead of painting a mutilated body, Waterhouse paints a smooth-skinned semi-nude figure. The spread of her auburn hair and the arrangement of red cloth that partially covers the body subtly suggest the blood and gore that Waterhouse omits. Thus, the most magical element of the painting — the snow falling — takes the foreground. Again, in The Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, Waterhouse enters the story after the frenzy of the murder committed by the Thracian women. In Waterhouse’s vision, the haunting face of Orpheus floats alongside his instrument, hinting at events past; this is a scene of haunting and nostaligic atmosphere, “recalling the story rather than confronting it” (Olympian Dreamers 26).
Classicism in the Aesthetic Movement
The relationship between the classical movement and the aesthetic movement is an ambiguous one. “Definition at times seems highly elusive, as some artists seem to have affinities with several groups at once — with the classical movement, the aesthetic movement, and the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism” (Olympian Dreamers 23). It seems that a tidy way to put it would be to say that the classical movement was a component in the aesthetic movement along with late Pre-Raphaelitism. Indeed, many painters shuttle between classical subjects and Pre-Raphaelite ideals, such as Albert Joseph Moore.
As Christopher Wood writes, “the Classical and Aesthetic Movements meet” in Moore (Victorian Painting 62). Moore's classical influence remains an ideal of beauty rather than of subject matter. Pomegranates for example, depicts three girls in classical costume standing next to a cabinet decorated with geometric designs. The only subject that can be extracted is the bowl of pomegranates, the namesake of the painting. Since Pomegranates is just one of many works to take seemingly trivial names that reflect color schemes or small objects in the paintings, it emerges that Moore is not interested in imposing narrative content on his art. Moore certainly developed decorative type of painting in which we find “everything from a Greek robe to a Chinese vase to a modern violin” (Victorian Painting 156).
Moore’s Apples shows his tendency towards the abstractly aesthetic painting. Despite the sleeping women and the classical setting, Moore simply names the painting Apples after the two tiny pieces of fruit in the bottom left corner of the painting. This seemingly random naming, and indeed the randomness of the apples’ presence, indicates that there is no story as work, the painting only exists for its transient beauty. Moore directs his devotion only to aspects of painting such as the balance of composition and color. The poses of the two sleeping women compliment each other in facing inwards from opposite ends of a couch; although the balance of their robes is thrown off by the greater block of light blue on the left, the blue vases compensate, bringing the distribution of color back to symmetry; even the frieze-like composition and even distribution of flowers and shapes on the wall behind the figures contributes the visual harmonies. Moore’s Apples can in fact almost be confused with Waterhouse’s Dolce far Niente. This painting is has the same flattened composition with the couch and screen-like background, and echoes the decorative strategy of Moore in the placement of various aesthetic objects across the canvas. The shape of the peacock feathers echoes that of the plants in the background, and the rich color and texture of the feathers further interacts with that of the leopard skin to appeal to the viewers senses and the luxurious quality of the scene.
In Diogenes we again see the force of the aesthetic ideal on Waterhouse. Diogenes, an ancient ascetic philosopher dressed in dull rags, contrasts heavily with the richly decorated, colorful, frivolous looking young ladies on the steps. Yet, amidst the accurate classical architecture and symbolically constructed costumes, Waterhouse places strangely Japanese parasols. Indeed, it appears as though Waterhouse may have chosen this round sun shade to echo and contrast with the circular tub in which Diogenes sits. The seemingly eclectic mix of influences here — the classical and the Japanese — are in keeping with the emergence of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1860s; here we can trace the aesthetic trajectory that grew in the years after the P.R.B. disbanded.
The sometimes bizarre associations of decorative objects an elements in paintings of the aesthetic movement indicates the departure from truth in painting that was so integral to the Pre-Raphaelites’ early desires. Treuherz notes that “Aestheticism rejected both the mimetic and the didactic roles of art and placed supreme emphasis on the intrinsic worth of formal values such a colour, line, tone and pattern. It thus discarded the genre, humour, narrative and anecdote of the early Victorians, and also ran counter to Ruskin’s interpretation of art as an imitator of nature and a means to convey moral and spiritual truths” (131). Looking back Rossetti, an original Pre-Raphaelite, we see that many of his portraits aspire to aesthetic designs. His ladies are often decked in jewels and other decorative accessories, and the gilt frames inscribed with his poetry heighten the appearance of these portraits as decorative, artistic objects. Bocca Bacciata, for example, showcases fine jewelry, hair accessories, and Rossetti also places an apple on the table in front of the lady for no apparent reason. His portrait named “Veronica Verones” is equally striking in its appeal to the senses: the woman’s clothes have a rich velvet texture, and Rossetti includes another of the senses — sound — through placing both a singing bird and a violin in the painting. Perhaps, then, we can look at Rossetti’s later portraits as prototypes for the subjectless, aesthetic portrait of the genre produced by Moore, with Moore taking the idea to a classical extreme.
Yet, another difference between Rossetti’s pictures of women and those of Moore comes through in the fact that Rossetti tended to paint the femme fatale figure whereas Moore paints sweet-faced, anonymous classical beauties. Edward Burne-Jones, another champion of the aesthetic movement, also painted such anonymously beautiful women. For example, in “The Golden Stairs” the each lady is a slight variation of the same pale skinned girl with reddish hair. This painting is subjectless, a dream, which places it firmly in the aesthetic trajectory. Burne Jones’s women are strikingly opposite from the strong-features women that the Pre-Raphaelites admired. Indeed, one of the favorite Pre-Raphaelite models was Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris) who was “tall in an era that prized small stature. She was dark at a time when the fair prevailed. The firm planes and sharp angles of her face seemed forged in defiance of conventional prettiness” (Mancoff 1). As Rossetti said of his model, “Beauty like hers is genius,” and in such admiration perhaps we see the love of truth and reality, rather than love for the unreal and ethereal beauty as displayed by Burne-Jones.
Medievalism, Aestheticism and Design: From Rossetti to Burne-Jones and William Morris
In charting the beginnings of the aesthetic movement as a departure form the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, we are directed back to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became the mentor of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, two central figures in the English Aesthetic movement. As Christopher Wood writes, by about 1860 first phase of Pre-Raphaelitism was over and the aesthetic movement began with the association of these three artists (Victorian Painting 35). The Aesthetic Movement catapulted Pre-Raphaelitism “into every aspect of Victorian artistic life – furniture, the decorative arts, architecture and interior design, book design and illustration, even literature” (36). In addition, this movement saw great changes in painting.
Rossetti’s love for medieval themes earned the admiration of Oxford students William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, so much so that they joined forces as artists (Treuherz 102). In fact, they worked together on a series of murals depicting scenes form the Morte d’Arthur, which were commissioned for the walls of the new Debating Hall in the Oxford Union Society Building in 1857 (Barringer 48). Morris later abandoned painting in favor of decorative arts such as wallpapers and textiles, yet we must ask whether the original inspiration came from the days of painting these murals with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his “intensely imaginative recreation of the Middle-Ages” (Treuherz 103). Indeed, perhaps it is in Rossetti’s fanciful and decorative watercolors depicting medieval times that we see the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism emerge: here was the start of the move towards the decorative bias of the Aesthetic Movement.
William Morris’ “Guinivere” for example is a highly decorative painting. Morris depicts the Queen dressing for the dual purposes of indicating her sexual escapades with Sir Launcelot, and also to draw even more attention to her patterned dress. In addition, other textiles such as the rug, bedspread and wall hangings are equally ornamental and thus the painting displays Morris’s interest in design. The portrait “Sidonia von Bork” by Edward Burne-Jones takes patterning and decorative clothing to the extreme. The focus of this portrait is unmistakably the strange ribbon-like structures on the lady’s dress. The dress seems peculiarly two dimensional, as if Burne-Jones was truly inspired to create a design rather than a three dimensional scene in a painting.
As discussed above, the early association of Burne-Jones and Morris is clear in their emphasis on design in painting, and the medieval influence in these works is unmistakable: Wood correctly observes that Burne-Jones and Morris contributed to leading “art and design back to the spirit of the Middle Ages” (Victorian Painting 37). However, only Burne-Jones continued to paint (Morris took up design exclusively) and has become widely known as the quintessential aesthete. What other influences, apart from design, contribute to his painting style?
Burne-Jones’ trips to Italy during the period from 1859 to 1873 influenced him greatly. In “The Mirror of Venus” we see the Italianate style in the Botticcelian figures and color scheme. In addition, Burne Jones placed great weight on the dream-like quality of his art. In his own words:
I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no-one can define, or remember, only desire…” (Victorian Painting 40).
Thus, the lunar landscape in the mirror of Venus and the even golden light that permeates “The Golden Stairs” are not incidental peculiarities, but deliberate attempts to create dream-like effects. He was not trying to be realistic in these paintings. Perhaps also the identical faces of the women begin to make sense — Burne-Jones creates a deliberately perfect world in his paintings, and the identical women contribute to the harmony and evenness of the scene. The women in these paintings belong to the classical era, as shown by their robes, indicating the influence of the classical movement on Burne-Jones’ aesthetic.
The Pre-Raphaelite mark, however, is ever-present in Burne-Jones’ work. For example “Le Chant d’Amour,” painted between 1868 and 1877, displays clear Pre-Raphaelite tendencies. The flowers in the foreground are meticulously accurate, and the bright colors and concentration of the figures close to the front of the painting echo Pre-Raphaelite style. Burne-Jones uses color carefully — the blue and red blocks of color are spread from left to right, so as not to throw off the harmony of the composition. The use of color here is reminiscent of that used by Raphael in “St. Catherine of Alexandria” and hence we see the display of Italianate use of color. A dreamy mood prevails in this painting, as the listeners experience the music and the central musician gazes forward intensely. The setting of this painting is also unmistakably medieval. As Wood notes, Burne-Jones’ style is a “highly personal but typically aesthetic mixture of Pre-Raphaelite, Italianate and classical elements” (Victorian Painting 36).
Despite the influence of an Italian education, and classical ideals, later in life Burne-Jones returned more than ever to the medieval and Arthurian legends that so inspired himself and Rossetti at the start of their artistic association. For example, Burne-Jones said of his final painting of “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” (left unfinished after his death) that “Avalon is my chief dream now and I think I can put into it all I most care for” (Harrison and Waters 34). “The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon” boasts accurately botanical plants and flowers, minutely decorated crowns, and perfectly arranged robes. The even lighting and pale expressionless faces bring a contemplative and nostalgic atmosphere to the work; Burne-Jones created the ultimate dream of a peaceful death in the utopian land of Medieval England. As a side note, he was appalled by the decadence of the 1890s such as Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for the new edition of the Morte d’Arthur, which, according to Christopher Wood “horrified poor Burne-Jones” (Olympian Dreamers 46). Seeing nothing but the spread of 19th Century “materialism and ugliness” in these pictures, Burne-Jones laments the fall from grace in his attempt to perfect his aesthetic vision of Avalon (Olympain Dreamers 191).
The Aesthetic Dream of Edward Burne-Jones
Appropriate to the ambiguous nature of aestheticism as a discrete movement (due to its varying influences) the mature work of Burne-Jones is equally fascinating in its overt allusions to classical subjects as well as medieval ones, and quasi-classical scenes such as “The Golden Stairs”. For example, in the Pygmalion series, we see a classical myth invested with the “atmosphere of medieval courtly love” (Olympian Dreamers 173). In addition, we note the overwhelming influence of classical sculpture on Burne-Jones’ work:
His figures have an air of the statuesque about them. Robes are very often perfectly arranged, and poses are indeed static rather than looking like phases of movement. This runs in direct contrast to many of the realistically awkward figures in early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. In “Christ in the House of His Parents,” for example, Holman Hunt paints the instability of mid movement or unnatural movement. The boy carefully carrying a bowl, for example, comes across as extremely tense in the effort. Burne-Jones on the other hand, seems to be extremely concerned about the perfect balance and exact posture of his figures such as “The Mirror of Venus” indicates. He arranges the women in perfect harmony around the oval pool, and pays careful attention to the way that they interact with each other. They rest on each other naturally and from the curve of their bending poses and to the graceful curl of their fingers, these women act as one. Thus, we can place this painting within the aesthetic movement, as Burne-Jones disregards truth in favor of the harmony of composition. As noted earlier, even the landscape behind the figures denies truth in favor of smoothness, contributing to the effect of the painting as a dreamscape. It is also important to note that the figure of Venus is slightly out of place; she is the only erect figure and she gazes into nowhere whereas the other ladies either gaze into the water or at Venus herself. Venus’ posture with one knee bent, and the apparent weightlessness of her robe, makes her appear like a statue in the painting.
In discussing the influence of sculpture on Burne-Jones’ works, it is particularly revealing to look at the Pygmalion series of paintings, in which Burne-Jones tells the Ovidian story of a statue coming to life by the power of Venus in a series of four discrete paintings. First, in “The Heart Desires”, Burne-Jones paints Pygmalion in a moment of contemplation. He is alone in a room apart from three statues in the background, and two real women walk past the open doorway. Burne-Jones uses warm, earthy colors and light outside in contrast to the white, more ethereal light that shines through the windows into the room. This discrepancy indicates Pygmalion’s separation from the outside world, and emphasizes the idea that there are two worlds at work in the painting; the outside reality and the interior fantasy of Pygmalion’s mind. Indeed, we can look upon the interior of the room in which Pygmalion stands as a figurative representation of his mental interior; he is enclosed in a space of fantasy. In this context the three statues, illuminated by the white light, emerge as Pygmalion’s inspiration or the vision of the feminine ideal which he desires to attain; these statues appear to inspire Pygmalion to create his own sculpture.
In Ovid’s version of the tale Pygmalion carves the statue out of ivory, yet Burne-Jones skips to “The Hand Refrains” which depicts the finished statue with Pygmalion looking on. Burne-Jones’ decision to pass over this central artistic act causes Pygmalion to somewhat lose his agency in the paintings. Indeed, he looks distressed and horrified as he looks upon the sculpture, as if he had not made it. The title of this painting, “The Hand Refrains,” hints at the fear and danger within the pursuit of perfection, perhaps.
The third painting entitled “The Godhead Fires” shows the statue bending, arms entwined with those of Venus herself. Pygmalion is entirely absent which accentuates Venus’s power in the story in contrast to Ovid’s version, in which the ivory body softens into flesh in the arms of Pygmalion as her lover. Pygmalion’s impotence continues into the final painting, “The Soul Attains,” in that he kneels meekly at the feet of the new woman; his back bent and his eyes looking up at her with infatuation. We are left to wonder who the greater artist is: Pygmalion on the merit of his vision of perfection and sculpting power, or Venus and her power to bring that sculpture to life.
Interestingly, Venus’ sheer clothing makes her look very much like the naked statue coming to life. In addition, the intertwined arms of Venus and the statue make them look almost like a single being. Similar to goddess in “The Mirror of Venus,” Burne-Jones paints the figure as a living statue. He has amalgamated his vision of the classical deity with the ideals of classical beauty as represented in classical sculpture. In sum, this set of paintings clearly shows — in both Burne-Jones’ technique and his subject matter — the pursuit of statue-like beauty as the ideal. Classical statues are revived as the epitome human beauty by Burne-Jones’ aesthetic ideals. These paintings, in their desire to fuse godly beauty with human beauty, display the tension between “the real and the ideal, between the classical tradition and Pre-Raphaelite sensuality” (Lambourne 284).
The series paintings of Burne Jones are true narrative paintings, which thus seems to counter the ideals of the aesthetic movement. However, as I have shown, some of Burne-Jones’ paintings tend towards the subjectless aesthetic, such as “The Mirror of Venus” or “The Golden Stairs”. Furthermore, both his medievalism and classicism are fused with an overwhelming aesthetic sensibility, allowing us to label him an aesthete.
Waterhouse between Aestheticism and Classicism
Christopher Wood writes in Olympian Dreamers that among “the painters of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, it was Waterhouse who made the greatest contribution to the classical movement. In his work the classicism of Leighton and the aestheticism of Burne-Jones are fused, to produce a highly individual and romantic style” (224). Indeed, despite his dedication to classical myth, his figures seem real rather than inhabitants of a dream-like universe as we see in Burne-Jones’ work.
Circe, the mythical sorceress of the island of Aeaea, transforms her victims to animals using a magic herbal drink. In the painting of “Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses,” Waterhouse depicts the witch in the action of trickery and seduction itself, holding the cup out to her victim. Waterhouse indicates that Circe is in control by positioning her above the eye of the observer; her seat is raised up on a step and she tilts her chin upward so that we must look up into her eyes as she looks down. In this way, Waterhouse manipulates her posture to place her in a position of superiority. In addition, Circe’s background indicates power in that the shapes which frame her (the mirror and the arms of her chair) create the effect of a throne. In this way, Waterhouse portrays Circe as a dangerous and beautiful woman.
Her dark eyes, hair and lips produce a powerful and frightening demeanor, yet the milky whiteness of her chest and the delicately translucent fabric of her robes indicate her alluring qualities. Indeed, the painting is the ultimate display of her mixed attributes as she holds the cup straight out in front of her in a fearful and yet tempting gesture. Ulysses, on the other hand, is subordinated in the painting – he is merely reflected in the periphery of the mirror, and he bends slightly before Circe as if he is in the midst of bowing or beginning a humble approach to take the ominous cup from her outstretched hand. In some ways this emerges as a strangely inverted version of the lady of Shallot – she waits for the man, yet she is the one in power.
Waterhouse transforms this character in another painting, simply named Circe in which he presents a more informal and less frightening image of the witch. Waterhouse’s technique is also sketchier, contributing to the informality of the painting. Instead of sitting on a throne, Circe occupies a much more domestic position at a table, surrounded by urns. She is informally leaning forward with a book open by her side, as if she is working on her spells in privacy. Her jaw is still strong, yet her lighter hair, soft pink robes and downward gaze onto the table produce a less intimidating effect. In this pose, chin in hand, Circe appears to be quietly contemplating something in the manner of many Pre-Raphaelite ladies. Waterhouse’s ability to depict, alter and refine characters from myth and poetry, captivates the interest of the viewer. As Treuherz observes, “The paradox of the Aesthetic Movement lay in the fact that though the cult of beauty was of central importance, the need was felt for art to have a deeper meaning” (142). I think that Waterhouse truly achieved this by going back to individual characterization of his figures, and the narrative painting of which the Pre-Raphaelites were so fond.
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.
Harrison, Martin , and Bill Waters. Burne-Jones. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1973.
Lambourne, Lionel. The Nude and Classicism. London: Phaidon, 1999.
Mancoff, Debra. Jane Morris The Pre-Raphaelite Model of Beauty. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2000.
Nunn, Pamela Gerrish. Problem Pictures: Women and Men in Victorian Painting. Guildford: Scolar Press, 1995.
Treuherz, Julian. Victorian Painting. Singapore: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical painters 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, 2000.
Wood, Christopher. Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolors. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors Club, 1996.
Last modified 9 December 2006