Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer / the Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910

By Helsinger, Elizabeth | The Art Bulletin, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer / the Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910


Helsinger, Elizabeth, The Art Bulletin


STEPHEN WILDMAN AND JOHN CHRISTIAN with essays by ALAN CRAWFORD AND LAURENCE DES CARS

Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer

New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 372 pp.; 173 ills., mostly color, 109 b/w. $75.00 cloth. Exhibition schedule: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 4September 6, 1998; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, England, October 17,1998-January 17,1999; Musee d'Orsay, Paris, March 1-June 6, 1999. ANDREW WILTON AND ROBERT UPSTONE with contributions by BARBARA BRYANT, CHRISTOPHER NEWALL, MARYANNE STEVENS, AND SIMON WILSON

The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910

Paris: Flammarion for Tate Gallery Publishing, Ltd., 1997. 304 pp.; 139 color ills., 60 b/w. $55.00 cloth. Exhibition schedule: Tate Gallery, London, October 16, 1997-January 4, 1998; Haus der Kunst, Munich, January 30-April 26,1998; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, May 15-August 30, 1998.

John Christian, the leading Burne-Jones scholar, introduces the massive, splendidly produced catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 1998 exhibition Edward BurneJones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer with a retrospective survey of the artist's abrupt changes of fortune. In Burne-Jones's own lifetime, recognition came relatively late. A largely selftrained artist who began as an Oxford undergraduate reading literature and preparing for the Church, he did not develop his fine skills of draftsmanship, distinctive visual vocabulary, or expressive use of color until his thirties and forties. Perhaps more important, for the first part of his career he worked mostly on small-scale pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors for a circle of friends and private buyers. He supplemented income from this work with designs for stained glass and other furnishings sold (usually unsigned) through Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, the firm of "Art Workmen" headed by William Morris, who decorated church and domestic interiors on commission and later produced furniture, wallpapers, and patterned fabric for the upper end of the retail trade. Not until the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, when he was forty-four, was Burne-Jones discovered by an exhibition-going public as a major painter. But by his sixties (he died at sixty-five, in 1898), the public acclaim and high prices he knew in the late 1870s and 1880s were rapidly disappearing. Christian quotes a selection of largely unappreciative comments from succeeding decades, ranging from the merely contemptuous to the triumphantly cutting. For much of this century Burne-Jones's art dropped from critical and public notice. When not forgotten, he was suspected of complicity with the philistine British parochialism for which the Victorian years were remembered. There were always those who cast regretful glances back at the artist who, after all, had defined himself as profoundly unsympathetic to mid-Victorian sentimental, domestic aesthetics. But for most critics, particularly in the decades from the Great War through the early 1960s, Burne-Jones's individual vision and highly stylized art were deeply compromised by its brief moment of late Victorian popularity. As critique or renewal, Burne-Jones's art was dismissed as at best misguided and selfdeluding, at worst pathetically or even criminally ineffectual.

Christian's introductory essay repeats the gesture with which he opened the much more modest catalogue he wrote for the pioneering Arts Council exhibition of 1975-the most comprehensive exhibition devoted to BurneJones since his death (and in fact larger than the Metropolitan's). The much smaller exhibition organized to commemorate the centenary of the artist's birth in 1933 had been hedged round with apologies, even by its promoters. In 1975 Christian, then publishing the first fruits of a decade of intensive study undertaken when Burne-Jones was hardly a respectable subject of art historical research, introduced the artist with cautious optimism as recently returned to favor.

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