Burne-Jones defined art as "a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be — in light better than any light that ever shone — in a land no-one can define, or remember, only desire" (Wood 119). This vision of pure aestheticism is exemplified in The Mirror of Venus where neither storyline nor reality dominate. Instead, a group of beautiful women admire themselves and each other in a rocky, desolate setting. The background is an anywhere and nowhere place of bare stony hills and white delicate trees beneath an indeterminate sky.
The nine women and Venus in the foreground are oblivious to what lies behind them, rather, they are focused entirely on themselves, on Venus standing at their side or on their reflections in the pool. There seems to be no ostensible storyline, the accompanying title, The Mirror of Venus, offers no hint as to how the audience is supposed to approach this work. The mirror is in fact, a pool of reflecting water and although Venus stands at the water's edge, she has no real relation to her reflection or to the pool. Indeed, Venus is the only figure in this painting to deviate from the more standard Pre-Raphaelite representation of a beautiful woman: she is blonde instead of auburn or red haired, her hair is bound rather than rich and flowing, and her light blue dress evokes a more Classical period and contrasts with the rich, earthy more conventionally Pre-Raphaelite colors of the women surrounding her. Finally, the actual serene faces and graceful positions of the women at the water's edge would suggest that they are another representation of the contemplative women. However, each gazes directed at Venus or at their own reflection. In contrast, their reflections lack direct visual focus and instead are sweetly vague. Thus it is in their reflective faces and figures that the body of the contemplative woman appears.
The contemplative woman recurs in both Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art and aesthetics. In The Mirror of Venus, the contemplative woman appears, not in the actual figures but rather, in their reflections within the pool. How does this affect the position of the viewer? In other words — given that the artist is someone who captures the image, why would Burne-Jones have an image within an image (the reflection of the women as another layer)?
Burne-Jones does employ Pre-Raphaelite techniques in this painting, most obviously in the clustering of the figures and the pool in the foreground. However, whereas other Pre-Raphaelite painters employed this technique to create push the viewer into the painting and often created close, almost claustrophobic spaces, in The Mirror of Venus , the viewer is kept at a distance and the background is vast and almost eerily empty. What other aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism appear in this work? What techniques do not?
Venus is the Goddess of Love and Beauty, and the pool is, ostensibly, her Mirror. Yet she neither gazes into the water nor does she appear in it — her reflection is obscured by lily pads. What role does she play in the painting? Why the title? And what meaning can we attain?
Burne-Jones conceived of art as "a beautiful romantic dream" and associated it with memory and "desire." In what ways does this work evoke such emotions? And how is this achieved?
- Blending Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetics and Italian Renaissance Painting (The Mirror of Venus)
- Beyond the Aesthetically Pleasing in The Mirror of Venus
- Aestheticism and Ambiguity in Burne-Jones's The Mirror of Venus
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 12 June 2020