Edward Burne-Jones / English, 1833-1898. SN 422, Oil on Canvas, 1870

From: The Pages

Burne-Jones was an English painter, illustrator and designer, born in Birmingham; he died in London. He favored an aesthetic style which was suggestive rather than specific. He summed up his own ideas on painting as follows: "I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream, of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any that ever shown - in a land no-one can define or remember, only desire - and the forms divinely beautiful." His early success was in stained glass, and he taught the subject from 1859 to 1861.
He studied the nude and the antique during the late 1860s, and improved his draftsmanship and use of watercolor and oils. He developed into a fine colorist, and his sense of line was powerful.

The serpentine rhythms he developed while under the influence of Botticelli are characteristic of Burne-Jones paintings. He was a leading figure in the second Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was a mixture of romantic medievalism and the desire to return to the art of the early Italian Renaissance before Raphael. His taste was rather classical; his elongated shapes (influenced by Botticelli) and his paintings of ethereally beautiful women were popular at the end of the century.

The scene depicts the coming destruction of a ship by the Sirens. The Sirens were described in the Odyssey (12:54) as creatures with the heads of women, who attracted sailors to their deaths with irresistible magic songs. In Homer's poem Odysseus was warned about the Sirens by Circe, the magician. She directed him to fill the ears of his seamen with wax so that they should not hear the Siren's song. He himself was to be bound to the mast, and he gave orders to his crew not to release him until they had passed the Siren's island.

Burne-Jones began the painting in 1870, worked on it for the rest of his life, but never finished it. Although inspired by the Greek story, he intended a more universal application….sirens of any time luring men to their destruction. The coloration is somber, setting the mood of imminent death.

This work was part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1998 entitled Edward Burne-Jones, Victorian Artist-Dreamer. It was the first American retrospective devoted to his work.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement, of which Burne-Jones was a leading figure, was formed in 1848 and ended in 1853, when John Millais, one of its members, was elected to the Royal Academy. His acceptance was considered an abandonment of their ideal: to produce work in the spirit which imbued Italian artists before Raphael's move to Rome. Some other members of the Brotherhood were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, & John Ruskin. Burne-Jones designed wallpaper for Wm Morris, whose wife Jane Morris became not only the model but the mistress of Burne-Jones.