One of the last Pre-Raphaelites, Edward Burne-Jones brought imaginary worlds to life in awe-inspiring paintings, stained glass windows and tapestries
When Burne-Jones’ mural sized canvas of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid was exhibited in the shadow of the newly constructed Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition universelle in 1889, it caused a sensation scarcely less extraordinary than the tower itself. Burne-Jones was awarded not only a gold medal at the exhibition but also the cross of the Légion d’honneur.
He became one of those rare “Anglo-Saxons” who, from Constable in the early nineteenth century to Jerry Lewis in the late twentieth century, have been taken into the hearts of the French intelligentsia. For a few years while the Burne-Jones craze lasted, fashionable French women dressed and comported themselves “à la Burne-Jones”, cultivating pale complexions, bruised eyes and an air of unhealthy exhaustion.
The two great French Symbolist painters Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes immediately recognised Burne-Jones as an artistic fellow traveller. In 1892, the cheer leader of the “Decadence” “Sâr” Joséphin Péladan, announced that Burne-Jones would be exhibiting at his newly launched Symbolist Salon de la Rose-Croix alongside Puvis de Chavannes and other leading French Symbolist and English Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones wrote to his fellow artist George Frederick Watts “I don’t know about the Salon of the Rose-Cross — a funny high-fallutin’ sort of pamphlet has reached me — a letter asking me to exhibit there, but I feel suspicious of it.”
Like Puvis de Chavannes (who went so far as to write to Le Figaro denying any connection with the new Salon), Burne-Jones turned down the invitation. It is very unlikely that Burne-Jones would have accepted, or perhaps even have understood, the label of “Symbolist”. Yet, to our eyes, he seems to have been one of the most representative figures of the Symbolist movement and of that pervasive mood termed “fin de siècle”.
Symbolism was a late-nineteenth-century reaction to the positivist philosophy that had dominated the mid-century. It found expression in the gross materiality of the paintings of Courbet and Manet and the realist novels of Emile Zola and in Impressionism with its emphasis on sensory perception. Above all, it was a reaction against the belief in progress and modernity represented by the Eiffel Tower itself and against the triumph of industry and commerce celebrated in the vast “Hall of Machines” in the same exhibition, which had filled Puvis de Chavannes with horror and had given him nightmares.
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