Sir Edward Burne-Jones catapulted to fame after exhibiting The Beguiling of Merlin at the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 along with two other works: The Days of Creation and The Mirror of Venus. His creative and innovative ability to fuse Pre-Raphaelite ideals with influences drawn from the Italian Renaissance masters drew high praise, and he became recognized as the leading artist of the later PRB generation. Burne-Jones's trips to Italy allowed him to become familiar with the works of the Renaissance artists, and his later works came to incorporate the combination of "Michelangelesque figures with the enigmatic, androgynous faces of Leonardo" (Wood 118). Thus, Burne-Jones makes a clear departure from the photographic realism emphasized by the early Pre-Raphaelites and instead, embraces a new aestheticism. However, he maintains a connection to the PRB by further developing the highly romantic notions that characterized the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
In The Beguiling of Merlin, the background appears highly decorative and mythical as opposed to being filled with the minute details of nature that fit with Ruskin's ideals. The flowering trees actually seem to make room for the figures of Merlin and Nemue, which allows the eyes of the spectator to be drawn to the human forms in the foreground of the painting. although Burne-Jones does not pay as much attention to the detailed aspects of nature as earlier PRB painters such as William Holman Hunt, he does utilize much detail in painting the drapery of the robes.
1. In its early days, members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paid significant attention to remaining faithful to nature, thereby creating a realistic, photographic representation of the surroundings to frame the figures. Why do you think that Burne-Jones chose to move away from this aesthetic?
2. In the painting, the figures appear to be superimposed on the background. Do you think Burne-Jones intended to achieve this effect? Why does Burne-Jones not use perspective in The Beguiling of Merlin? What effect does this have?
3. The face of Nimue appears to resemble the androgynous faces that Leonardo da Vinci often used to depict his figures. Why do you think Burne-Jones became fascinated with androgynous facial features? Would using a face reminiscent of Rossetti's Fair Lady, for example, change the nature of this painting? How so?
4. Christopher Wood says that Burne-Jones intends "to appeal to the poetic imagination of the spectator." How do you think this work appealed to the spectators during Burne-Jones's day? Do you think the appeal would have varied amongst spectators of different social classes?
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 12 June 2020