The defining oppositon in Roman and Greek culture was the hegemonic asymmetry between the concepts of masculinity and femininity that underpinned classical life from philosophy right up to politics. The polarity between male and female rested upon gender constructions that were based on observed biological sex differences. The Hippocratic Corpus medicalized gender asymmetry by focusing on the physiological and anatomical differences between the two sexes. Gender specificity was given by allocating the qualities of 'wetness' to women and 'dryness' to men, priviledging the male. Earlier Aristotle had described the two sexes as opposites existing within the larger category 'Man'. By arguing that the male seed was fertile and the female seed infertile he claimed the primacy of man's role in procreation, famously asserting that woman was a 'deformed' man. This gender polarity was the principle underlying the active/passive, rational/irrational, ruler/ruled binaries that individuated male and female and dominated the rhetoric of the classical period.

These apparently ontologically derived metaphysical assumptions equally coloured gender considerations in Victorian Britain as well. As far as the classical movement in art was concerned we only need to turn to Sir Richard Westmacott's statue of Achilles, which praises the Duke of Wellington's military success by alluding to the male Homeric warrior, to see their sense of manliness personified. In Laurence Alma-Tadema's Roman scenes women are almost always depicted in the private domain but men occasionally appear in public engaged in political action: a statement of the social implications of culturally determined gender constructions. The early Pre-Raphaelites were the first pictorial artists to challenge the long-established notion of the woman through paintings that blurred gender boundaries. Dante Rossetti in particular contributed to this by painting masculinzed square-jawed, thick-necked women modeled on an aesthetic that was entirely his own creation. His constant allusions to the femme-fatale represented an anxiety over women that suggested their power over the opposite sex.

Edward Burne-jones, who studied under Rossetti, was arguably more controversial than his master. He didn't just paint powerful Pre-Raphaelite women, as with Laus Veneris, he also painted effeminate men. He even went as far as using his regular model Maria Zambaco as a model for St Mark the Evangelist. Paintings such as Phyllis and Demaphoon are typical of the androgyny that he became famous for. Both Phyllis and Demaphoon seem to belong to the same sexless gender.The lack of muscularity and the vague almost impotent eyes in men like Burne-Jones' Demaphoon alarmed critics. A large group of contemporary critics responded to his paintings in the language of pathological discourse, using pseudo-medical terminology and accusations of physical and moral degeneracy to denounce his work. Burne-Jones was seen as a danger to his heterosexual, middle-class, male audience and their outright horror at his work indicates how resistant classical values were to his aesthetic. They considered emasculating man as almost a crime.


1. Is androgyny seen or used any differently in art today?

2. Do any of Burne-Jones contemporaries represent an acceptable flirtation with gender boundaries but one that did not draw so much attention?

3. Burne-Jones said 'the more materialistic Science becomes, the more angels I shall paint' as a response to his critics. In what sense does his use of gender represent a response to materialism, essentialism or determinism?

4. The literary critic Camille Paglia claims that Burne-Jones' 'embowered nature begat Art Nouveau'. To what extent can we trace his influence on the movement, or any other future movements?

5. . What role does Burne-Jones play in the classical movement in Victorian culture? Does the so-called decadence/aesthetic movement have any parallels in Rome?

Related Materials


Waters, Bill. Burne-Jones -- A Quest for Love: Works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt and Related Works by Contemporary Artists. London: Peter Nahum, 1993.

Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.

Last modified 12 June 2020