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.
Last modified 25 December 2006