Burne-Jones

Parkstone International
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Burne-Jones’ oeuvre can be understood as an attempt to create in paint a world of perfect beauty, as far removed from the Birmingham of his youth as possible. At that time Birmingham was a byword for the dire effects of unregulated capitalism – a booming, industrial conglomeration of unimaginable ugliness and squalor. The two great French symbolist painters, Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, immediately recognised Burne-Jones as an artistic fellow traveller. But, it is very unlikely that Burne-Jones would have accepted or even, perhaps, have understood the label of ‘symbolist’. Yet he seems to have been one of the most representative figures of the symbolist movement and of that pervasive mood termed “fin-de-siecle”. Burne-Jones is usually labelled as a Pre-Raphaelite. In fact he was never a member of the Brotherhood formed in 1848. Burne-Jones’ brand of Pre-Raphaelitism derives not from Hunt and Millais but from Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Burne-Jones’ work in the late 1850s is, moreover, closely based on Rossetti’s style. His feminine ideal is also taken from that of Rossetti, with abundant hair, prominent chins, columnar necks and androgynous bodies hidden by copious medieval gowns. The prominent chins remain a striking feature of both artists’ depictions of women. From the 1860s their ideal types diverge. As Rossetti’s women balloon into ever more fleshy opulence, Burne-Jones’ women become more virginal and ethereal to the point where, in some of the last pictures, the women look anorexic. In the early 1870s Burne-Jones painted several mythical or legendary pictures in which he seems to have been trying to exorcise the traumas of his celebrated affair with Mary Zambaco. No living British painter between Constable and Bacon enjoyed the kind of international acclaim that Burne-Jones was accorded in the early 1890s. This great reputation began to slip in the latter half of the decade, however, and it plummeted after 1900 with the triumph of Modernism. With hindsight we can see this flatness and the turning away from narrative as characteristic of early Modernism and the first hesitant steps towards Abstraction. It is not as odd at it seems that Kandinsky cited Rossetti and Burne-Jones as forerunners of Abstraction in his book, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”.
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About the author

Patrick Bade is a leading art historian and international guest speaker. Previous publications by Parkstone International include works on Beardsley, Renoir and Rops.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Parkstone International
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Published on
Dec 22, 2011
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Pages
82
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ISBN
9781780424149
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
Art / Ceramics
Art / European
Art / General
Art / History / Modern (late 19th Century to 1945)
Art / Individual Artists / Monographs
Art / Techniques / Painting
Art / Techniques / Printmaking
Design / Decorative Arts
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Eligible for Family Library

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Ornans, Courbet’s birthplace, is near the beautiful valley of the Doubs River, and it was here as a boy, and later as a man, that he absorbed the love of landscape. He was by nature a revolutionary, a man born to oppose existing order and to assert his independence; he had that quality of bluster and brutality which makes the revolutionary count in art as well as in politics. In both directions his spirit of revolt manifested itself. He went to Paris to study art, yet he did not attach himself to the studio of any of the prominent masters. Already in his country home he had had a little instruction in painting, and preferred to study the masterpieces of the Louvre. At first his pictures were not sufficiently distinctive to arouse any opposition, and were admitted to the Salon. Then followed the Funeral at Ornans, which the critics violently assailed: “A masquerade funeral, six metres long, in which there is more to laugh at than to weep over.” Indeed, the real offence of Courbet’s pictures was that they represented live flesh and blood. They depicted men and women as they really are and realistically doing the business in which they are engaged. His figures were not men and women deprived of personality and idealised into a type, posed in positions that will decorate the canvas. He advocated painting things as they are, and proclaimed that la vérité vraie must be the aim of the artist. So at the Universal Exposition of 1855 he withdrew his pictures from the exhibition grounds and set them in a wooden booth, just outside the entrance. Over the booth he posted a sign with large lettering. It read, simply: “Courbet – Realist.” Like every revolutionary, he was an extremist. He ignored the fact that to every artist the truth of nature appears under a different guise according to his way of seeing and experiencing. Instead, he adhered to the notion that art is only a copying of nature and not a matter also of selection and arrangement. In his contempt for prettiness Courbet often chose subjects which may fairly be called ugly. But that he also had a sense of beauty may be seen in his landscapes. That sense, mingled with his capacity for deep emotion, appears in his marines – these last being his most impressive work. Moreover, in all his works, whether attractive or not to the observer, he proved himself a powerful painter, painting in a broad, free manner, with a fine feeling for colour, and with a firmness of pigment that made all his representations very real and stirring.
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