Beautiful, Aesthetic, Erotic

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain, 1860–1900

an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, April 2–July 17, 2011; the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, September 12, 2011–January 15, 2012; and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, February 18–July 17, 2012
Laing Art Gallery/Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Newcastle upon Tyne
Edward Burne-Jones: Laus Veneris, 1873–1878


Created a baronet by William Gladstone, friend of Sarah Bernhardt, and idol of the Symbolists, by the time of his death in 1898 Sir Edward Burne-Jones was the most celebrated English artist in the world. To his admirers, his art represented the culmination of a literary tradition in painting that stretched back to the Renaissance. But to be a literary painter at the end of the nineteenth century was to be on the wrong side of history. Soon enough his reputation would begin its long descent into twentieth-century oblivion.

He sensed this, and was defiant. When a studio assistant told him that French Impressionism was not “based on literature,” he snapped, “What do they mean by that? Landscape and whores? That’s what they want—nothing but landscape or if any figure pictures more or less languid whores.” His own paintings, he added, were “so different to landscape paintings. I don’t want to copy objects; I want to tell people something.”

The exhibition staged by the Tate Gallery in June 1933 to mark the centenary of his birth was therefore something of a bittersweet occasion. Among those present at the private viewing was the artist’s old friend the collector and aesthete W. Graham Robertson, who looked around at his fellow guests and saw “a little crowd of forlorn old survivals paying their last homage to the beauty and poetry now utterly scorned and rejected.”1

From this nadir, things could only improve. Writing in Horizon in 1940, the neo-Romantic critic Robin Ironside defended Burne-Jones’s Romantic Symbolism against Clive Bell’s idea of “significant form” by arguing that a picture’s poetic content was every bit as important as its formal properties. Scorning fashion, Ironside drew parallels between Burne-Jones, the British Visionary, and the French Symbolist Gustave Moreau.2 In the 1960s art dealers, collectors, and writers began to take an interest in his work, but not until 1975 with the opening of John Christian’s pioneering retrospective at the Hayward Gallery and the publication of Penelope Fitzgerald’s delightful biography did a full-scale revival get underway. Today his is once again a household name—and yet as an artistic personality he remains curiously elusive. There is something about Burne-Jones’s work that still needs to be explained, something that has not yet been said.

In The Last Pre-Raphaelite, Fiona MacCarthy identifies that something as the sublimation of desire into art. Aimed at the general reader, her thoroughly researched biography changes our perception of the man and his art by exploring in depth aspects of his life that an art historian might only consider in passing. In recognizing the undertow of melancholy and sexual frustration embedded in work of hypnotic visual power, she articulates what the illustrator George du Maurier called the “Burne-Jonesiness of Burne-Jones.”

By contrast, in his…

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