The Rejection of Narrative in Spencer-Stanhope's "Love and the Maiden"


Love and the Maiden

John Rodham Spencer-Stanhope's Love and the Maiden employs a style which recalls that of Edward Burne-Jones, but uses that style in the service of a generalized allegory rather than as an illustration of a preexisting text. The painting depicts an encounter between Cupid or Eros, the god of love, and an anonymous maiden dressed in a vaguely classical or Italianate fashion. Cupid holds his familiar bow in his left hand, while in his right hand he holds a stalk of pink flowers, either presenting them to the maiden or bending them back so that he can approach her. The maiden looks back at him with a slightly nervous expression, while also raising one hand in what a gesture which may indicate hesitation. The title of the painting casts Cupid/Eros in his traditional role as the personification of love. Thus, we can read this painting as an allegorical representation of a young virgin's first encounter with love. The maiden's nervous gestures suggest her apprehensive reaction to this life-changing moment. In the background four other maidens appear, engaged in a dance. By setting these maidens apart from the single maiden in the foreground, Spencer-Stanhope contrasts their carefree, innocent unconcern with the maiden's anxiety and impending maturity.

In stylistic terms, this painting calls to mind the work of Burne-Jones, who was younger than Spencer-Stanhope, but had been associated with him at least since the Oxford Union library murals of 1857. For example, due to their realistic drapery and fully realized three-dimensional appearance, the maidens resemble those in Burne-Jones's The Mirror of Venus. Spencer-Stanhope also draws upon the same Italian sources that provided the background for Burne-Jones's own work. For instance, the contrapposto poses of the two principal figures resemble the characteristic poses of Renaissance art, and the dancing maidens in the background resemble those in Sandro Botticelli's Primavera. Christopher Wood confirms that Spencer-Stanhope's works "reflect his obvious admiration for Florentine Renaissance art, especially Botticelli." This particular painting thus reflects the influences of both Burne-Jones and the painters who inspired Burne-Jones.

However, Love and the Maiden differs from most works of Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites in that it does not seem to refer to any particular narrative. The maiden has no name, nor does she have any obvious distinguishing features which link her to a particular mythological character. Cupid/Eros appears in the painting, but it does not clearly depict any of the myths surrounding this god. Furthermore, the title "Love and the Maiden" indicates that Cupid performs the function of a personified concept, rather than that of an individualized character in a story. Finally, the spectator can interpret the painting without reference to any events which occurred before or after the scene it depicts. It makes sense as an allegorical depiction of a generic scene which could occur in the life of any maiden. Though one could construct a narrative around the scene depicted in the painting, one need not do so in order to understand the painting. By contrast, the paintings of earlier Pre-Raphaelite artists typically made sense only in the context of a narrative which predated the painting. For example, in order to interpret Holman Hunt's The Triumph of the Innocents, the spectator must know the Bible stories of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt. Similarly, most of Burne-Jones's works were his versions of episodes from William Morris's poetry. Love and the Maiden departs from such works in that it privileges allegory over narrative.

Questions

1. Why might Spencer-Stanhope have dispensed with narrative in this way? In doing so, does he accomplish the same effects as those of earlier non-narrative Pre-Raphaelite paintings, such as The Mirror of Venus or Millais's Autumn Leaves?

2. To what extent does Spencer-Stanhope's focus on allegory over narrative represent a departure from his immediate predecessors? Does he use allegory as a replacement for more specific typological symbolism?

3. Does this painting employ any type of specific symbolism, other than its obvious allegorical meaning? For example, do the flowers Cupid holds represent anything in particular?

4. This painting takes place in an odd-looking setting filled with tree stumps and patches of barren ground. Why might Spencer-Stanhope have chosen this setting rather than a more idyllic one?

5. The tree stump between Cupid's legs bears the inscription "RSS 1877." Does the presence of the artist's signature affect the viewing experience in any way?


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts John Rodham Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908) paintings by John Rodham Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908) Discussion questions forlate Pre-raphaelites

Last modified 5 December 2004