At the heart of symbolism

The spirit of symbolism


Portrait of Burne-Jones

An influential being

Edward Jones (1833-1898) took the extra surname of Burne to differentiate himself from the legions of painters named Jones. Burne-Jones was the most important and best painter of the late Pre-Raphaelism. This art, which presents obvious affinities with the Symbolist movement, emerged in England during the years 1850s, 10 years before the beginning of the proper Symbolist period of Gustave Moreau. A new style, which predates Raphael, is at the origin of the creation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

After a childhood spent in his native town, Birmingham, he decided to become a church minister and attended Exeter College at the University of Oxford in 1853. There, he met William Morris who became his lifelong friend. Both shared the same passion for art and undertook a trip to the northern part of France in 1855. After their return and the discovery of the works of Gabriel Dante Rossetti, the leader of the Pre-Raphaelites, they left Oxford without taking a theology degree. Burne-Jones became a painter and Morris an architect.

Burne-Jones quickly became a disciple of Rossetti only five years older than him, but developed his proper style during several travels in Italy. He devoted the bulk of his time to the execution of feather and wash drawings. After his marriage around 1860, he began to paint watercolours enhanced with gouache. In 1861, William Morris set up his famous company, Morris & Co, for which Burne-Jones drew sketches for stained glasses and tapestries. Then, he devoted himself to oil painting.

Hardly recognized at the beginning of his career, he nevertheless became celebrated in the 1870s. In 1877, he was persuaded to exhibit at Grosvenor gallery and became famous from one day to the other. His celebrity reached France where a number of his canvasses were exposed during the World Fair in Paris in 1878. Considered as the greatest living artist in Britain in the 1880s, Burne-Jones had a strong influence on the British painting and, after 1889, on the Symbolist French painters.

As all Pre-Raphaelite painters in general and Gustave Moreau in particular, Burne-Jones devotes a lot of time to each of his canvasses. He leaves one, goes to another before coming back to the first and so on. Burne-Jones is one of the first artists to break the conventional frameworks of the dimension and presentation of paintings. He is fascinated by dreamy, elongated figures. Associated with a pictorial technique breaking with the spatial depth, they give to the body of his canvasses the vision of another world. As Fernand Khnopff whom he met several times, he creates his own feminine type inspired by figures from the Renaissances studied during his travels in Italy. He notably admires Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Mantegna. His works, which depict Greek mythology as well as Celtic and Arthurian legends, are crammed with tall nubile girls with a creamy complexion. Moreover, his masculine personages often have androgyne features as it suits to beings coming from elsewhere.

Although Burne-Jones influenced more the Symbolist movement than the opposite, he nevertheless represents its spirit and counts among the greatest artists of the 19th century.

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