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.

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Last modified 25 December 2006