Art History

Siddal, ‘Lady Affixing Pennant to a Knight’s Spear’, 1856
Watercolour on Paper, 137 x 137 cm
Tate, London.

The small dimensions of this painting suggest it may have been a private, intimate piece. Perhaps it functioned as an artistic exercise, as Siddal was at this time relatively new to painting and receiving tuition. It shows a unique handling of watercolours: normally used as a thin wash, they are thickly applied almost against their original design. This technique creates radiant blocks of vivid colour, which are reminiscent of early 15th century Flemish paintings and stained glass windows.

This is a medieval scene of love and loss: a knight bids his love farewell before going into battle. She ties a favour to his spear – red scarf – as a sign of affection and luck. In these parting moments, their eyes do not meet, and instead are cast downward with a feeling of sorrow and dread. Through the doorway the knight’s squire holds the reins of a horse, ready to escort him to the battlefield. The landscape outside is barren and cold, emphasising the uncertainty surrounding the young man’s fate.

The Medieval subject explores the roles of gender within Victorian society, and intensifies the contrast between gendered spheres: the interior and the exterior. Despite this closed-off intimate setting we are reminded of the outside world through the open window and doorway. The bleak landscape holds no promise for the woman, and coldly awaits the knight’s arrival. This is emphasised by the squire readying the knight’s horse. Clearly the lovers must be separated; he will have to go without her. This exterior world is his place, not hers.

In comparison, the tight composition emphasises the woman’s place within the domestic sphere. It may serve as a comment upon the constraints women felt, relegated to the household. This is emphasised by the way the floor seems to curve upwards by the doorway, as though the room is literally enveloping the couple. The brown, red and orange hues of the interior heighten its warmth and comfort, as opposed to the cold green, blue and purple hues of the distant landscape.

The distinction between their rightful places and their impending separation are accentuated through their postures. The knight kneels with his feet pointing towards the doorway, almost revealing the path he is soon to take, whilst the woman is firmly rooted to the bench, turning her back toward the open window. She pays no attention to the outside world, and exists wholly within the confines of this interior.

It has been suggested that the painting is ‘laden with sexual symbolism’.[1] The couple’s tender embrace is brutally dissected by the large, linear shape of the knight’s spear. In one respect, this could be argued to serve as a phallic symbol, which dominates the entire composition. This adds a deeper level of meaning to the image of the couple, hinting that their relationship is sexual as well as romantic. On the one hand this may suggest that they are married, which further emphasises the anguish caused by the knight’s departure. On the other hand it could be read as moralistic: if the couple were to be having a sexual relationship out of wedlock, they would be committing a carnal sin and the knight’s departure may function as their punishment. This could additionally be interpreted as a warning from Siddal to Rossetti, who at the time of this painting’s production had been promising marriage for many years but had not yet honoured his pledge. It is unknown whether or not the two lovers had a sexual relationship at this time, but if Siddal had insisted on protecting her virginity, as it has been suggested, this painting may have functioned as something of a warning to the audacious Rossetti.[2] Finally, with reference to the gender roles previously addressed, the predominance of this linear cut through the composition, along with its phallus-like interpretation, could also emphasise male dominance, particularly regarding Rossetti’s overshadowing artistic career.

Siddal’s use of colour is suggestive, particularly in the depiction of the lady’s pennant, and furthermore her hair: long, unbound, flowing and red. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were known to have favoured red-haired models; Siddal herself is said to have been sought out particularly for the colour of her hair.[3] Parallels have previously been drawn between the couple in this painting and the relationship between Siddal and Rossetti, and it has been suggested that this painting simultaneously functions as the artist’s self-portrait alongside the portrait of her lover.[4] While this may be convincing, the colour of the woman’s hair may serve as more than simply an identifiable characteristic. Some might say that red hair could also be associated with a fiery temperament, a passionate nature and sexual awakening, and with the Pre-Raphaelite interest in early Renaissance and Medieval works, many of which depict the eroticised bodies of redheaded women, this argument is quite compelling. Some examples include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486, Florence, Uffizi) and Titian’s Woman with a Mirror (1513-15, Paris, Louvre) and Venus of Urbino (1538, Florence, Uffizi).

Botticelli, ‘The Birth of Venus’, 1486
Tempera on Canvas, 172 x 278 cm,
Uffizi, Florence.

Titian, ‘Woman with a Mirror’, 1515
Oil on Canvas, 99 x 76 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

While it is apparent that Siddal contributed several works to various exhibitions, it is not clear whether or not Lady Affixing a Pennant to a Knight’s Spear was ever shown in public during the artist’s lifetime. There is currently no record of this, and no published contemporary reviews of this particular painting. It has been suggested that the watercolour was later given as a gift to Burne-Jones, as it was acquired by the Tate Gallery from his son Philip in 1917, using the funds of W. C. Alexander.[5]

What is certain is that the painting was included in two exhibitions in 1947 and 1948, at Birmingham’s City Museum and Art Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, London respectively. Both events served to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and that Siddal’s works were among those on display emphasises the importance of her role within the group.

[1] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[2] J. Marsh, ‘Imagining Elizabeth Siddal’ in  History Workshop Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, (Oxford: Spring 1988),  70; 73; 76; 77

[3] M. Lutyens, ‘Walter Howell Deverell (1827-1854)’ in L. Parris (ed.) Pre-Raphaelite Papers (London: 1984), 80

[4] Upstone, Pre-Raphaelite Dream, 83

[5] Ibid., 83; W. C. Alexander was a wealthy banker, and a friend and patron to James McNeil Whistler, who became part of the later circle of artists associated with Rossetti after Siddal’s death.

Poussin, 'Landscape with a Calm', 1650-51

Poussin, ‘Landscape with a Calm’, 1650-51

The man with the goats has seen this light before.
He enjoys it, takes it seriously, but does not turn on his heel
To get a better view. His dog awaits instructions.
People like him have stepped into the same river twice.

I grant you (imagine this barked by a Labrador) that blues and yellows
Sometimes turn things aside from the way they are normally.
For instance, the grass on the low escarpment by the south approach
Is pulled sideways by the sun most afternoons, as if good grazing
Could go on forever, like lava or glacier ice, but cooling, slowing,
Green as grass, maybe, but grass mashed by a pumice
Into an eternal dry paste. Epidermis, cosmetic,
Shadow on the eyes of a face.

The two women in the windows of the high castle
Could care less about green. The world comes to them
Essentially as sound, warmth, a flooding of low energies into oddly shaped receptacles.
Bagpipe music (finally tolerable). Birch leaves. The smell of stubble fires being doused.

Don’t assume that men on galloping horses are in a hurry.

It’s the same old story (the stock figure speaks): Goats do not take a lot of managing,
The dog is underemployed fifty per cent of the time,
But there are always sufficient local shenanigans for us
To be on the wrong side of the river when the sun goes down.
Numbers of times I have measured the last mile and a half
Against the inclination of shadow on the washhouse roof
And decided not.

I do not believe that aromas, even of ash, can be therapy
Any more than the bust in the innermost room of the castle,onyx, email,
Waiting for the Dark Ages, offering them its Roman nose.
Art is not a set of survival skills. The city in the water
Is enough of a stereotype, the city on the hill having failed us.

To be specific, look at the sky. Not the same blue everywhere
But not changeable, not empty, not the blue of a house by the sea.
Not a philosopher’s thinking away of particulars,
Or a painter’s pressing the flesh and having ether be up front;
Sky blue, but sky seemingly touched by something not of this world,
A brush or a glove, until it looks the same way for a week.

* * *

This poem excerpt was taken from TJ Clark, The Sight of Death, Yale University Press, 2006, 40-41

JE Millais, ‘Speak! Speak!’, 1895
Oil on Canvas, 1676 x 2108 mm
Tate, London

Millais’ works are well known for his precision and painstaking attention to detail. Painted over four decades after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Speak! Speak! (1895) demonstrates a noticeable change in the artist’s handling of his materials, and a radical departure from his earlier roots. While many parts of the painting still demonstrate his precision, such as the bound letters on the bedside table, the roman lamp, and the woman’s jewels, the majority of the work comprises loose brushstrokes. Furthermore, the greater part of the painting is engulfed in darkness, illuminated from a single light source.

Unlike the unfolding stories present in his earlier works, the subject matter of Speak! Speak! is deliberately ambiguous. The scene is thought to depict a young Roman who has, after spending the night reading letters from his lost love, awoken to find her standing before him as she appeared on their wedding night.[1] The man starts up in his bed, reaching out a hand towards her, as if – as the title suggests – begging her to speak. To the left, a dimly lit doorway is left open, and a turquoise patch of paint in the upper left corner suggests an open window, revealing a night sky outside. This allows in enough light to illuminate an ascending spiral staircase, from which the ghostly figure is presumed to have come. To the right there is a bedside table, upon which there is a bundle of letters bound with a red ribbon, and a single candle placed next to a mirror, lighting up the room. The candle gives off smoke to the right, which forms a skull-like shape.

A question is left unanswered: is this woman a ghost? The title, ‘Speak! Speak!’ is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Horatio addresses the ghost of the dead king, which could allude to the dialogue taking place in this painting.[2] In addition to this there are several clues in the way the woman is painted that could affect our interpretation: one remarkable aspect of the woman is the way in which she is lit. Despite the dimness of the room and the candle as a single light source, she is completely illuminated in the darkness. What is more, Millais has painted her with particular colours that cannot be found anywhere else in the painting. On close inspection, her skin and dress comprise not only white, but blues, greens and purples. His application of the paint in small daubs almost resembles the Impressionist approach to create the illusion of flickering light, and adds greatly to the illusion of the woman’s glowing form. These colours ultimately endow her with a ‘cold’ appearance, as opposed to the man whose flesh is painted with reds and oranges and is noticeably ‘hot’ in comparison. Is this the distinction between hot-blooded, living flesh and a cold, ghostly apparition? Or is it simply due to the man being closer in proximity to the burning candle?

This painting addresses the border between what is real and what is not. It is difficult to ascertain whether or not she is made up of living flesh, because despite the way she pulls back the curtains, there is no physical contact made between the two figures that could answer this question. The only hint of contact between them comes from the shadow cast by the man’s arm, which brushes the woman’s hand. However the shadow itself has no substance, and could therefore serve as an allusion to the woman herself. Finally it is impossible to ignore the skull formed by the billows of smoke to the right of the painting, which serves a somewhat ephemeral memento mori.

There is of course another potential reading of the female figure: perhaps she is neither living nor ghostly, but a figment of the man’s imagination. Kate Flint has suggested the possibility of the woman being a psychological hallucination, ‘caused by some internal disturbance in the man’s mind’, and later implies that paintings such as this can address issues surrounding the relationship between hallucination and vision.[3] Some contemporary reviews even addressed this, suggesting she is a symptom of another ailment, with one critic writing that the man is in a high fever, while another sees her as a ‘result of indigestion’.[4]

Whatever the physical state of the woman, her presence is haunting. Painted towards the end of the artist’s life, we glimpse the ageing and increasing frailness of his body through the strokes of his brush. Speak! Speak! bears the lamentations of a life near its end, and is wholly underlain by images of ageing, death and decay.

[1] J. G. Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, vol. 2. (London: 1899), 304

[2] W. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene I, Line 51 in P. Edwards (ed.) Hamlet: Prince of Denmark (Cambridge: 2003), p.89

[3] K. Flint, The Victorians and Visual Imagination (Cambridge: 2000), 261-2

[4] R. J. Slade, ‘The Royal Academy’ in Art Journal (London: June 1895), 164; ‘The Spring Art Exhibitions’ in London Society, vol. 67, no. 402, (London: June 1895), 616

* * *

This excerpt comes from a larger body of work produced in collaboration with the University of Bristol and Tate Britain between November 2011 and January 2012.

‘Rossetti’s use of instruments appears at first glance to be the idiosyncratic approach of an artist with a magpie-like attraction to visually arresting objects.’[1]

The exotic instruments in D.G. Rossetti’s paintings have frequently been remarked upon.[2] A vertically positioned Japanese koto, a harp-lute with exaggerated curvature and a lute with two extra strings are but a few examples of his somewhat whimsical employment of musical instruments amongst his compositions. It is easy to dismiss this as ignorance, but Alan Davison’s fascinating article stresses the intention behind these discrepancies. Drawing largely upon the thesis of Lorraine Wood, Davison examines these often bizarre depictions from a new perspective.

Wood’s thesis asserts that ‘the very unplayability of Rossetti’s instruments is deliberate rather than accidental, and is central to his goals’.[3] This is Davison’s point of departure. He argues that Rossetti prioritised the physical form of the instrument, ‘as symbolic parallel with non-musical associations’.[4] Extracting the instrument from context, Davison examines its function within the pictorial composition of Rossetti’s works, and constructs two rationales which form the basis of his argument:

1. Musical instruments as ‘symbolic physiognomy’

What does the physical form of the musical object contribute to the musician who wields it? Davison draws upon the 19th century practice of Physiognomy to examine the instrument as a physical extension of the musician’s body.

Rossetti, ‘Girl with a musical instrument’, c.1870
Pen and Brown Ink on Paper, 21.6 x 14.9 cm
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, UK

In Girl with a Musical Instrument (Fig.1), Rossetti demonstrates the symbiosis of player and instrument. His model cradles a harp-lute in a manner which, while giving the scene a tender feel, is wholly impractical for playing. Davison examines the excessive curvature given to the instrument’s neck, which echoes the long and graceful neck of the model:

The oneness of musician and instrument underlies the composition, and the resulting strange instrument is a direct reflection of the physiognomic – and so inner – qualities of the player.[5]

This a convincing example of Davison’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ in which the instrument serves as an extension of the musician’s body. My own thoughts turned to the maternal aspect of the model’s demeanour. I felt – with reference to the revelation of inner essence – the model’s posture and the cradling of the harp-lute resembled the cradling of a baby by its mother. An additional layer of tenderness, perhaps, to an already sensual image.

2. Displacement of desire

Davison argues that Rossetti’s depiction of musical instruments allowed for metaphorical suggestions of tactility and erotic desire.

He likens the plucking of strings to stroking, touching and weaving; all actions which are overtly linked in Rossetti’s poetry. The juxtaposition of the playing of strings with an amorous subject, Davison argues, provided a visual tool for the artist to represent agonised desire.

Rossetti, ‘Morning Music’, 1864
Watercolour on Paper, 29.5 x 26.7 cm
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Morning Music features a musician playing a lute-type instrument with two additional strings to the left of the soundboard (Fig.2). Physically, these strings add nothing to the instrument’s playability. Davison argues that by juxtaposing the instrument, abundant with evenly spaced, golden strings with the long, golden hair of the woman, Rossetti displaces the musician’s desire onto the instrument itself. As his hand tenderly strokes the strings of the lute, we catch a glimpse of his longing to stroke the woman’s hair.

Davison asserts that this displacement not only constructs meaning, but endows the image with power. It becomes ‘about’ the music:

… the overall scene becomes a macrocosm of the instrument and presumably the power of its player.[6]

Rossetti, ‘A Sea Spell’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 109 c 91 cm
Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA

Sea Spell from 1877 encapsulates both Davison’s rationales (Fig.3). It features a Japanese koto incorrectly positioned vertically, while the musician’s fingers look as though they are more likely to be weaving than plucking. The poem accompanying this painting refers to weaving, causing this image to echo ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in its union of artistry and agony:

Her lute hangs shadowed in the apple-tree,

While flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell,

Between its chords; and as the wild notes swell,

The sea-bird for those branches leaves the sea.[7]

This painting substantiates Davison’s (and Wood’s) claim that Rossetti deliberately depicted instruments conversely to their proper use. The koto has adjustable bridges, which enabled him to imitate the strings of a loom, combining plucking with weaving. Not only does this play upon the sensuality of the poem’s assertion, ‘…flashing fingers weave the sweet-strung spell between its chords’, it also alludes to Davison’s first rationale: ‘the loom/weaving motive [is] now embedded within the physiognomy of the instrument’.[8]

Davison concludes that Rossetti’s attraction to associating music with action reveal in his works an underlying desire illustrated by the stroking and plucking of strings. The incorrectly positioned and often bizarrely adapted instruments do not expose the artist’s carelessness, but rather his penchant for visual metaphor. In the author’s words, ‘the instrument plays a much greater role than merely a decorative prop; it provides both the compositional and symbolic backbone of the painting.’[9]

* * *

A. Davison, ‘Woven Songs and Musical Mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of Music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3, 89-94

Dr Alan Davison is Senior Lecturer at the School of Arts, University of New England.

[1] A. Davison, ‘Woven songs and musical mirrors: Dante Gabriel Rosseti’s ‘symbolic physiognomy’ of music’, The British Art Journal, 13.3 (2013), 89

[2] E. Helsinger, ‘Listening: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the persistence of song’, Victorian Studies 51.3 (2009); D. Macleod, ‘Rosseti’s Two Legeias: Their relationship to visual art, music, and poetry’, Victorian Poetry 20.3 (1982); K. Powell, ‘Object, symbol, and metaphor: Rossetti’s musical imagery’, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 2 (1993), are but a few examples.

[3] Davison, ‘Woven songs’, 89

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 90

[6] Ibid. 91

[7] Rossetti, quoted in Ibid., 92

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 91

As part of Bristol’s Festival of Ideas, T. J. Clark returned to the city of his school days to discuss the subject of his new book, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. In his previous examination of Picasso’s classic Cubism between 1909 and 1913, Clark argued that the aim of Cubism was not to display an object from all angles upon a two-dimensional surface as we are taught, but in fact to do the exact opposite. In Farewell to an Idea, Clark’s preoccupation with Picasso’s works stemmed from the argument that he played upon the bourgeois desire to see illusionism in art: representation of familiar objects and bodies.[1] He now returns to Picasso with a different agenda, seeking to ‘re-frame’ a familiar artist through examining a neglected period – the 1920s – and his method in doing so requires the complete rejection of biography.[2]

Clark is well known for his radical thinking (indeed, he was introduced to us by Paul Gough as ‘the bad boy of art history’), and the moment he referred to Iconography as the ‘curse’ of the discipline, I was hooked. His latest research sets out to re-examine our perception of Picasso as an artist through his lesser studied works, rather than through anecdotes, as so frequently incorporated into ‘trivialising celebrity literature’. As he argued, Picasso has frequently been painted as a madman in ‘a frantic parade of eroticism’, but when we glance at his works from the 1920s, we are given a very different picture of the artist. Clark rejects the hero worshipping, biographising of the artwork, simply asks us to look at Picasso’s paintings, and question how this transition came about.

Picasso, ‘The Three Dancers’, 1925
Oil on Canvas, 215.3 x 142.2 cm
Tate Britain, London

Picasso, ‘Guitar and Mandolin on a Table’, 1924
Oil and Sand on Canvas, 140.7 × 200.3 cm
Guggenheim, New York

With regard to the two works above, Clark’s emphasis was not upon the representation of the female body, nor the depicted objects in relation to the twentieth century. His preoccupation was with the notion of proximity. In both paintings, the subject is depicted in front of a window (in fact, Three Dancers also went by the name of Jeunes filles dansant devant la fenêtre). Through both windows all we glimpse of the twentieth century world outside is a plane of vibrant blue. Behind the dancers, it bursts through the window; although supposedly a receding colour, the outside world is utterly penetrating. What does this tell us about the way in which Picasso was coming to terms with the rapidly changing world outside his window? The subjects of these paintings are undeniably framed by the windows behind them, and moreover founded within a framework of the twentieth-century world: riddled with anxiety and, in Clark’s words, ‘lacking a culture of truth’.[3]

Clark refers to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he reflects upon the end of the ‘ascetic ideal’ – the human need for purpose – and what this means for the artist.[4] According to Nietzsche, the ascetic ideal encompasses the artist’s need for some sort of ideology to rely upon. Clark questions what function art was to play within Nietzsche’s predicted ‘spectacle’, in which we no longer feel this need to have a purpose. Where would this leave art?

Clark’s conjecture is that Picasso was the artist Nietzsche was waiting for – he is the revealer of Untruth in a world where artists strived to reveal Truth. For Nietzsche, Truth was unobtainable, and we couldn’t handle it even if we could access it. For him, this is what led us to worship a God and seek salvation. But with Christianity’s golden age coming to an end, where would we be left? For Nietzsche, existence is appearance: he refers to ‘that bloodless Plato’ as the ‘enemy of art’ and indeed makes frequent references to the Republic, in which the artist is condemned as a deceiver, and an unreliable guide to the natural world.[5] Art’s didacticism is emphasised, and its effect is perceived as damage.

For Clark, Untruth is the recognition of the world as fragile, lacking structure, and Picasso’s paintings reveal a world in crisis. Examining the works following the First World War, we see how they are steeped in intimacy, proximity and nostalgia. He presents Cubism as a ‘backward-looking’ homage to the intimacy of the nineteenth century; even the artist’s seemingly radical collages derive from a nineteenth-century bourgeois feminine activity. Through examining Picasso’s pictorial arguments and leaving biography behind, he presents paintings such as Three Dancers and Guitar and Mandolin on a Table as a registration of the dramatic changes taking place during the 20th century. His approach is admirable, his writing beautiful, and his argument is wholly convincing.

[1] Clark, T.J., Farewell to an Idea (1999)

[2] Clark, T.J., Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013)

[3] A brief reference to Victor Stoichita’s examination of the window frame within paintings would be useful here. According to Stoichita, the depiction of a frame, be it the frame around a painting, a door or window frame, or even a niche or embrasure, puncture the picture’s surface and demonstrate its self-awareness. Through the depiction of a frame, the painting becomes aware of its own status as a work of art. By framing the three dancers, they become part of ‘A Picasso’, itself being a declaration. This self-awareness greatly relates to the Nietzschean argument to come. See: Stoichita, V., The Self-Aware Image (1996).

[4] Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)

[5] Plato, Republic (380 BC)

i Goat ii Feet iii Mirror iv Stairs

  • William Holman Hunt, ‘Scapegoat’ (1856)
  • Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Monogram’ (1959)
  • John Everett Millais, ‘Isabella’ (1849)
  • Stanley Spencer, ‘The Last Supper’ (1920)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, ‘Mirror of Venus’ (1875)
  • Salvador Dali, ‘Narcissus’ (1937)
  • Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Golden Stairs’ (1880)
  • Marcel Duchamp, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase #2’ (1912)
(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, 'The Beguiling of Merlin', 1877 Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

(Fig. 1) Burne-Jones, ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’, 1877
Oil on Canvas, 186 x 111 cm
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin of 1877 (Fig. 1) depicts a scene from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which Vivien, the lady of the lake lulls the sorcerer into a deep sleep, enveloping him within the trunk of a Hawthorn tree. The figure of Merlin is slumped, horizontal and helpless, whilst the statuesque figure of Vivien looms over him, casting a strong vertical through the rather claustrophobic composition. With the painting standing almost two metres tall, her monumentality is heightened and the impact of her authority is rendered all the more powerful. The way in which his sandaled feet hang vulnerably in mid-air accentuates his lack of control, while Vivien’s feet are rooted to the ground in a strong and stable contrapposto stance.

The painting contains many visual cues that allow us to trace a ‘chain of receptions’, as described by H. R. Jauss.[1] By tracing similarities in style and iconography, we can identify ways in which paintings imitate aspects of their predecessors. This framework allows us not only to explore what an earlier artwork can reveal about a later one, but also vice versa. This method facilitates the construction of a two-way dialogue between art objects regardless of chronology, and allows for a reciprocal interpretation.

Many of this painting’s visual aspects were adapted from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, in which Vivien is frequently described as snake-like:

[Vivien] curved an arm about his neck,

Clung like a snake; and letting her left hand

Droop from his mighty shoulder, as a leaf.[2]


Burne-Jones’ rendering of Vivien’s long, curvilinear body is undeniably serpentine: the diagonal of her elongated neck stretching to the left is mirrored by her right hand and draws the eye downward toward the elbow. From here, the viewer’s gaze is directed in a meandering movement, descending via her slanted hips and the foreshortening of her right thigh, proceeding down past the bent knee and culminating in her sideward step. The joining of her hands to the splayed pages of the spell book creates a shape that is almost cyclical, allowing the eye to once again ascend through her left side and loop back to the beginning, thus constructing a fluid, snake- like movement of the gaze which traverses her entire form.

Furthermore, Tennyson’s declaration that Vivien wears a ‘snake of gold’ in her hair has been incorporated into Burne-Jones’s composition in the form of Vivien’s headpiece.[3] Though dark in colour as opposed to gold, it resembles a group of snakes, coiled and writhing through her hair (Fig. 2). This imagery is undeniably reminiscent of another archetypal femme fatale known for her serpentine locks: Medusa, the Gorgon who could turn men to stone with one look. The expression of Caravaggio’s Medusa of 1596 (Fig. 3) is strikingly different to that of Vivien’s, with the latter being one of quiet determination, and the former being in the throes of a scream. Despite these differences, however, there are notable similarities present in these two images, for example the snakes forming Medusa’s hair are comparable with Vivien’s headpiece. In both colour and form, the long, thin, writhing creatures recoiling at the moment of Medusa’s death could arguably have been removed from her scalp and let loose in Vivien’s long, dark locks of hair.

Studying the two images side by side, one cannot help but question what each reveals about the other. Undoubtedly Vivien’s headpiece likens her to the deadly Gorgon, who was cursed by her own beauty. Perhaps Vivien was also cursed in this way: she was unable to prevent Merlin from falling in love with her beauty, which ultimately led to his demise. Alternatively, it might also be noted that Vivien’s headpiece is rigid and static, whilst Medusa’s snakes violently thrash about her severed head, embracing their own deadly fate. Could it be that Vivien has succumbed to Medusa’s power and has turned to stone herself? Perhaps her own power lies within her ability to trick Merlin and subsequently her control over the situation, as opposed to Medusa’s curse, of which she has no command. Still, this comparison certainly adds a Medusan quality to Vivien’s icy glare.

* * *

This piece has been adapted from a larger project undertaken during my MA at the University of Bristol. This postscript gives a brief summary of other material covered:


The rendering of Vivien’s feet echo the feet of Botticelli’s Venus (Figs. 4 & 5). By connecting the two figures – femme fatale and goddess of love – I questioned whether this juxtaposition taints the latter or elevates the former.


With a slight rotation we see Merlin’s hand bears an uncanny resemblance to the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Figs 6 & 7). What happens when birth and death – both the beginning and the end – are juxtaposed in such a fashion? Adam raises his lofty, muscular arm outward and embodies an air of youth and vitality. In contrast Merlin is slumped and admitting defeat, with his finger pointing downward, emphasising his mortal decline.


Harking back to Botticelli’s Venus, the theme of water is prominent. The folds of Vivien’s gown, dynamic yet revealing a static form beneath, appear to flow like waves around the contours of her body. This is largely evocative of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum, particularly the three female figures on the West pediment (Figs. 8 & 9). Differing claims to their identities alter the reading of this two-way dialogue.

[1] H. R. Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: 1982), 20

[2] A. L. Tennyson, ‘Merlin and Vivien’ in Idylls of the King (London: 1859), 105

[3] Ibid., 140

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Just a gal being vegan, one small humane step at a time

The Complete Book

A little bit of everything


Mama. Vegan. Writer. Activist. Lover of Life.


Salt and a Smile

Cooking vegetarian with kids, one day at a time