The Mirror of Venus by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Mirror of Venus by Edward Burne-Jones (1898)

 The featured artist in My Daily Art Display today is the English painter Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.  He had close connections with the later phase of the  Pre-Raphelite movement and had close links with the textile designer and artist William Morris.  Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham.  His father, Edward, was Welsh and worked as a frame-maker.  His mother, Elizabeth sadly died   just six days after giving birth to Edward, who from then on was brought up by his father and the family housekeeper.

From the age of eleven Burne-Jones attended the King Edward VI Grammer school in Birmingham and at the age of fifteen transferred to the Birmingham School of Art.  In 1852, aged 19, he attended Exeter College, Oxford where he studied theology and it was here that through his love of poetry he first met William Morris, a similar devotee to the written word.  These two poetry-lovers along with some of their friends formed a close and intimate society which they called The Brotherhood.  In 1856 Burne-Jones founded the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.  It was at that time that Morris and Burne-Jones decided to seek outside contributions to their magazine and approached the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The ensuing meetings between Burne-Jones and Rossetti was to change the former’s life forever, for he had set his heart on becoming a church minister but Rossetti persuaded him, and William Morris, to become artists.  Soon afterwards Burne-Jones put university life behind him and began a new life as an artist.  It was not just that Rossetti had inspired the two university students, but both Morris and Burne-Jones had made an impact on Rossetti himself, for some time after their first meeting Rossetti told his friend the poet and artist, William Bell Scott, about the encounter, writing:

“…Two young men, projectors of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, have recently come up to town from Oxford, and are now very intimate friends of mine. Their names are Morris and Jones. They have turned artists instead of taking up any other career to which the university generally leads, and both are men of real genius. Jones’s designs are marvels of finish and imaginative detail, unequalled by anything unless perhaps Albrecht Dürer’s finest works…”

In his early days as an artist Burne-Jones was heavily influenced by the works of Rossetti and it was not until he travelled to Italy with John Ruskin that his style changed and he became his own man.  In 1877 he was persuaded by a group of his friends to submit some of his oil paintings at the opening show of the Grosvenor Gallery, a newly established venue which was a rival to the well-established Royal Accademy.  Over the early years the gallery, founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay, was to become vital to the Aesthetic Movement for it gave them an opportunity to showcase their works, the like of which was often scorned and rejected by the conservative Royal Academy.  One of those paintings put forward by Burne-Jones is my featured painting of the day, entitled The Mirror of Venus.  The exhibition was highly acclaimed and his career as an artist took off.

There followed an honorary degree from Oxford in 1881 and the following year he was made an Honorary Fellow.  In 1893 Prime Minister Gladstone was instrumental in him being created a baronet.  On his death five years later, the Prince of Wales intervened and insisted that the death of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones should be honoured with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey.  This was an outstanding honour as he was the first artist to be recognised in such a way.

This painting is a mix of the traditions of Pre-Raphaelitism and Italian Renaissance culminating in a new aesthetic style.  We see in front of us ten women peering at their own reflections in a small pool of water.  The landscape is quite barren almost like that of a lunar landscape.   Burne-Jones often used this type of background and of course his reasoning may have been that it does not detract from the scene in the foreground.  In fact it is a complete contrast.  By the title of the painting we are to believe that the elegant young woman standing is in fact Venus and the other nine females are her handmaidens.  The bright colour of their dresses and their dream-like mood is consistent with Pre-Raphaelite paintings but the grace and style of the figures themselves leans towards the Italian Renaissance style and especially that of Sandro Botticelli, whose work had always inspired Burne-Jones.

There is no background story to this painting.  This is not part of a tale from Greek or Roman mythology.  There is nothing in the painting which needs to be interpreted.  There is no hidden symbolism to discover.  What you see is what you get, and what you get is a group of beautiful young ladies sumptuously dressed in clothes of varying colours.    The women look rather wistful and do not seem particularly happy as they stare down at their own reflections.  I wonder what is going through their minds.  I wonder what is causing them to be anxious.  Maybe my inquisitiveness is just what the artist wants.  Maybe he wants me to decide what the painting is all about.  The painting, to my mind,  has a romantic element to it.  There is a definite sense of beauty to the painting , similar to that which we see with most Pre-Raphaelite works.

On painting in general,  Burnes-Jones said:

“…. I mean by a picture 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….”

It is a painting I would love to hang on my wall.