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).


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Last modified 25 December 2006