Monday, June 16, 2008

Burne-Jones and the Sleeping Princess

A few weeks back I slipped into my local Art Museum, intent on (at the least) seeing the three Edward Burne-Jones paintings that were part of the "Passages To Europe" exhibition passing through.

The Burne-Jones pictures featured in this exhibit were three paintings comprising his 1st series of "Briar Rose" illustrations. They portray 3 stages of the Sleeping Beauty story as inspired by an Alfred Tennyson poem.

Since childhood I'd been drawn to Burne-Jones, having come across his "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid" in a massive hard-bound book of Art Masterpieces of the World that my father had round the house and that I had been concurrently using as the base for some imagined medieval fortress.

Burne-Jones is a master of exquisite subtle color and flowing line and I don't give a
hang as to whether the pictures are decorative, over-romanticized, dated, over-literary irrelevant Victorian fluff, or whatever epithets (sometimes justifiable) are available for the tossing.
< King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1880-4)

Arthur Ruskin encouraged and, in fact, initially paid for Burne-Jones to journey to Italy in the 1860's to bring back studies and sketches of the masters for him. Burne-Jones gradually became quite smitten with the Italian Renaissance painters - in particular Botticelli - and subsequently made journeys to Italy of his own accord to immerse himself in the art. He would soak up the linear rhythms and coloring of the Botticelli paintings; it was nothing for him to devote a whole session sketching the the flowery patches of ground from the Primavera in the Uffizi gallery. Coincidentally, Burne-Jones' father was a gilder and carver and Botticelli apprenticed with a goldsmith and their attention to textured delicacies of detail may be linked back to the fine craftsmanship they were exposed to in youth.
Burne-Jones himself sheds light on this influence, saying,

"I love my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels. I should like every inch of surface to be so fine that if all but a scrap from one of them were burned or lost, the man who found it might say whatever this may have reperesented is a work of art, beautiful in surface and quality of color."

detail from Botticelli's Madonna of the Magnificat

The Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty painting, seen at the top of the page, is not the one I saw at the exhibit which dates from 1871 but from a later series (completed in 1890) based on the same composition. The earlier version, that I saw - which seems to be unviewable on the net due to copyright issues- is somewhat softer and dreamlike with a twilit blue tone to it (I would liken it more to a blend of Correggio and Fra Lippi) while the later version is more detailed and jewel-like with warmer colors.
Gazing long at the 1871 Sleeping Beauty painting (which was about 1" by 4") in the museum, I marveled at both the precision of the tiniest pink rose set against the cloth folds as much at the perfect balance of the whole scene; the eye following the lines of the the sleeping maids at the foot of the bed flowing into the supine Beauty and then down to the maid sitting at her side, head bowed in sleep, hands resting in fallen and withered petals. In the later, 1890 picture the hands of the maids are more expressively modeled, Botticelli-like, and the eye seems to finally rest on hand of the seated maid on the far right, resting on the ground, palm opened, like a flower awaiting a drop of rain.
I recommend to anyone a close inspection of the details of these paintings. either in person or through a decent reproduction. As David Corbett puts it in his excellent - aptly titled :) - short book, Edward Burne-Jones,

"The paintings use the rich textures generated by combining different media -

gouache, shell gold and platinum paint - to create a scintillating surface that marries

precision, in its description of fabric, flesh, and angel's wings, with an extreme assertion of the capacity of these media themselves to attract and seduce the spectator's eye.

Burne-Jones' works often perform this double process - on the one hand the detailed and evocative description of an imaginary world, and on the other the concrete realisation of imagination itself in the form of pigment, color, and line. "

* Corbett's book features excellent color reproductions of both the earlier and later
Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty paintings.


Michael Leddy said...

Haven't thought of it in years, but just did:

The Burne-Jones cartons [cartoons]
Have preserved her eyes;
Still, at the Tate, they teach
Cophetua to rhapsodize

from Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

The eyes, if my old notes are right, were those of Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal.

It's remarkable how childhood encounters with art and music can end up as lifelong tastes. (Me, Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, at the age of three.)

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Yes, i think you're right about the eyes.
Burne-Jones used his daughter Margaret as the model for later, c.1890, Sleeping Beauty.

I somehow think that a good deal of our tastes are already set innately but some are definitely acquired.

Bill Stankus said...

It's an interesting linkage, that of William Morris of the Art and Crafts movement and Burne-Jones.

Typically we associate Arts and Crafts with plain, unadorned furniture but there are elements of A and C, especially tapestries, rugs and book bindings, which have a bit of ornate in them. Perhaps that is some of the influence of Morris and Burne-Jones heritage.

persephone2u said...

Why did I never realize Botticelli's influence on Burne-Jones before?! It's so obvious now that you've mentioned it and displayed these paintings.

There's something magical about Burne-Jones' art that has always moved me. The Beguiling of Merlin is a firm favourite of mine, but I love all of his work.

These Briar Rose paintings are unspeakably beautiful. What a wonderful opportunity you had to see them up close and personal! Okay, I'm officially jealous now. :-)

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Bill -
William Morris; socialist activist, printer, book/textile/stained glass craftsman/designer, tapestry-maker, poet, writer, painter, translator from Icelandic...his work in all of his endeavors still resonates today.
Odd that, as young men reacting to the onslaught of the industrail revolution, Burne-Jones and Morris saw the "ideal" in the medieval world which was for them a place of chivalry and religious purity, rather than today's view which leans toward to lives that were "short nasty and brutish".

Burne-Jones stayed in a narrower world of dreams perhaps, focusng on his painting primarily, but Morris worked hard to make his dreams move in the world.

* side note for fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (if you didn't already know);
Morris 'medieval fantasy' novels, "the Wood beyond the World" and "Well at the World's End" were an early influence on the two authors. oddly enough William Morris introduces a character named Gandalf in one of his novels (this is back in c.1896) -
although, the name originally comes from the "pre-historical' Norse sagas, along with most of the names Tolkien used for the dwarves.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Persephone -
Long an ardent admirer of Botticelli and Burne-Jones myself, it hadn't occured to me until delving further into the stories behind the Briar Rose paintings how deep the influence was.

Well, you folks "across the pond" certainly have the cream of the Burne-Jones stuff, for instance;
"Cophetua" in the Tate,
the later period "Briar Rose" series is at Buscot Park (manor) in Oxfordshire which open in the summer.

The older Briar Rose paintings reside in Ponce, Puerto Rico and are therefore less seen. Hopefully, this exhibit will make it to you someday!

persephone2u said...

William Morris, the creator of some of the most amazing textiles ever is also a fantasy author? I feel like I've just learned that the earth revolves around the sun!

I just checked Amazon for The Wood Beyond the World and am happy to say that I shall soon be the proud owner of all the William Morris writings that I can possibly get.

Thank you so much for telling us all about this (well, I'm probably the only one reading your blog who doesn't know about Morris's books). I love C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and am always eager to read other books of this genre.

I will have to look for Cophetua at the Tate. I joined the Tate a couple of months ago but have only visited a few times and haven't seen everything there yet. Lucien's loud squeals of glee make me zip in and out of each room pretty quickly, haha.

Anonymous said...

oh, how dreamy...sigh

Anonymous said...

i really enjoy your artistic and lovely blog layouts as much as i enjoy the content of your entries. Really liked clicking on the art pieces and seeing them up close and personal.
Claire is off to Scripps (Claremont, CA) in a month to study her hearts She received a hefty scholarship, so we're EXTREMELY thrilled.
Wish I could go to the museum....would be like a visit to a gas chamber.....or the berry...

Tom the Piper's Son said...

L -
I'm glad to hear you like the pickchas. Fact is, sometimes the desire to put up the images is foremost and the text follows like a poor stepchild (I don't even know if that's the saying and it just makes me feel bad for the stepchild, but, there it is).
Even if i do have something in my mind the search for images is half the fun.

I'm so happy to hear about Claire's
scholarship to Scripps. Is it sill a women's college? It's a beautiful campus and as i remember (hope things haven't changed too much since my childhood) a beautiful area in general. Not so far from you either, yes?

L , you really should have a blog yourself. You have a lot of great insights - certainly there's enough freedom and anonymity to be as completely silly or profound as you like.
I will be your most diligent reader!

Anonymous said...

Nice to hear from you.

Your blog is the only blog i look at and admire. You always have something really great to mull over. I'll leave the blogging to those who have the aptitude.....a little too much adhd on this end.

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