Wednesday, 31 August 2011

That’ll do, Pygmalion

Again, I have been pondering the relationship between model and artist, and found myself looking at Edward Burne-Jones’ Pygmalion series, which struck me as an interesting example of how an artist sees the relationship between muse and maker. When Ned Burne-Jones met 23 year old Maria Zambaco he found his model, his pupil and his lover all rolled into one beautiful woman, but how far did her first role form the origin of her last, and what does Burne-Jones' work tell us of how he viewed the whole affair in retrospect?

Maria Zambaco (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Some critics draw a parallel between Burne-Jones’ images of Maria and Rossetti’s paintings of Jane Morris, and certainly his portrait of her in 1870 resembles Rossetti’s works of the 1860/70s. Parallels are made between this work and images such as La Donna della Finestra (1879) or Water Willow (1871), and linger on the theme of dark romance threaded through each relationship. Equally, however, Burne-Jones’ portrait of Maria resembles Frederick Sandy’s work of the period, for example his portraits of Mary Sandys or Kitty Howell from the early 1870s, and there is nothing dark about his relationship with either of his models.

La Donna  della Finestra (1879) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Ned’s use of Maria’s image subsequent to the end of their relationship is interesting. His most famous images of her are definitely his later ones, possible tempered by self-knowledge and a dose of reality, so we are party to very honest images that reveal not only his feelings towards Maria, but also his opinion of his own behaviour. Very few artists are blessed with such honesty in their work and I find it the most appealing aspect of Burne-Jones’ paintings that the man is able to admit his faults so freely and with such perception.

Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones
Most people are familiar with Phyllis and Demophoon, and Maria’s likeness emerges from the tree to embrace her lover in what should be a happy reunion. Demophoon looks startled and not altogether comfortable with the surprise and Phyllis grasps him in a manner reminiscent of The Depths of the Sea (1886) as the tendrils of her dress bind him to her. I definitely get an impression that her wildness will hold onto her man whether he likes it or not, and Demophoon is unable to escape again, and is not much of a catch to start with.

The Beguiling of Merlin (1873-4) Edward Burne-Jones
O What's That in the Hollow E R Hughes
As Nimue in The Beguiling of Merlin, Burne-Jones shows us his lover as the ultimate femme fatale, with snakes in her hair, capturing her man through supernatural means. Again, there is an inability on the part of the man to escape and possibly to deserve his fate at the hands of his beautiful betrayer. I found Merlin’s capture in the tree to be interesting as it reminded me of the Briar Rose panels and Edward Hughes's O What's that…?, and also at some level, La Pia de Tolomei by Rossetti, where nature has concealed and captured, preserving and holding in some magical way. It is as if nature itself conspires against the ‘hero’ (or heroine) and acts as accomplice to the dark magic, taking possession of the victim in some sort of eternal limbo, waiting sometimes consciously, but powerless to free themselves until someone choses to free them. A strange mixture of this is Phyllis and Demophoon as Phyllis was the one captured as a tree but now she seizes Demophoon and the pose looks as if she is pulling him into her, whether he likes it or not.

The most telling sequence of paintings on the relationship between model and artist seems to be Pygmalion and the Image, started in 1867 with the final series of paintings realised between 1875 and 1878. It a series of self-reflexive works with an artist creating works of art about an artist creating works of art, but also it tells us something about ideas of attaining perfection and the insular world of the artist and his muse.  Like his ‘leader’ Rossetti, Burne-Jones chose a model with artistic ambition and under his guidance saw her talent grow. It could be argued that Ned watched the beautiful face he admired grow into an accomplished artist, possibly under his ‘shaping’. When she became a woman of beauty and accomplishment, they became lovers. Pygmalion also shaped his perfect woman in a more literal sense, before falling at her feet, smitten. However, his illustrations on the theme show cracks of honesty and realism which contradict the romance of the story.

I. The Heart Desires
As Pygmalion considers the Graces in his studio in The Heart Desires, two beautiful girls pass by outside, pale and lovely, but unheeded by the sculptor. In the shiny surfaces of the floor, the lower halves of the goddesses are reflected, just as the pose of the two girls outside mirror the poses of the goddesses on the far right. Reflection plays an interesting part in the sequence, as if to question the reality of what Pygmalion sees and wants, what is true and what is folly.

II. The Hand Refrains
In The Hand Refrains, Pygmalion pauses, viewing his blank-eyed beauty with a curious expression, both intense and wary, as if he fears the power of his creation upon him. Beyond his window, people conduct their lives, and a couple of women talk. This is the last time ‘real’ people are seen in the sequence, as if this is the last chance for Pygmalion to go outside and re-join the ‘real’ world. Within the studio, things have a strange diaphanous quality, calling into question what exists. The strips of fabric over the window sill are at once solid and vapour, fading in and out of existence. The jar in the doorway fades from view like a phantom, and the brush resting on the plinth of stone below the statue's feet seems ghostly. Reality seems to slip from Pygmalion as he prays for something impossible, something that is about him and his desire with no reference to the real world at all.

III. The Godhead Fires
The Godhead Fires provides solidity to the scene. The transparent fading of the previous scene vanishes, and a solidly carved pillar is joyously swathed in rich fabric. The diaphanous fabric of Venus’ draped robes, which appears to be water and dress combined, reveals solid flesh beneath as she brings life to Galatea. Oddly, Galatea and Venus mirror each other, their arms locking and Galatea moving to break the ‘goddess’ pose she held, now held by Venus.

IV. The Soul Attains
Pygmalion discovers Galatea in The Soul Attains and falls to his knees. Again, the outside world is glimpsed but not involved in the story, the sunlight and life contrasting with the shadows and swathed fabrics of their home.

Maria Zambaco
What do these images tell us of the artist and muse/creation and Ned and Maria? Although the story is classical and romantic, Burne-Jones infuses it with a level of fear and a sense of what the artist missed on his quest for perfection. We never see Pygmalion outside his dark room, forever seeking his perfect woman. It could be argued that Burne-Jones allows that the artist and muse relationship can only exist in isolation from others, and at its heart it is not real. The fleeting transparency of the vase and wraps give an impression of illusoriness, that although we are shown the story, we are simultaneously being shown the flaws in it, the untruth in the classical truth. Like Pygmalion, Burne-Jones experienced the fear and joy of kneeling before his perfection, but she exists only in that moment, untried by reality. I think the most painful intimation of the Pygmalion series is the suggestion of what is given up, what is sacrificed in the pursuit of perfection, and possibly in showing that point, these paintings are both an acknowledgement and an apology for artistic and personal folly.


  1. I suspect Ned didn't really know what to do with a strong woman who actually responded to him. The end of their relationship was a farce but very sad for her - as she obviously really loved him.

  2. I agree, and I think he gave some acknowledgement to the fact he liked the idea of the affair much more than the emotional reality.

  3. I wonder if, at the beginning, he had a sort of idealized vision of what the affair would be and then was unprepared for the reality. Maria reminds me of all the girls I've known who sort of just melt down and explode at the end of a bad relationship only to regret their actions later.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx