Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Hélas! Je sais un chant d’amour
Triste ou gai, tour à tour
Alas, I know a love song, / Sad or happy, each in turn
Traditional Breton song
In the early summer of 1862 Edward Burne-Jones, accompanied by his wife, traveled to Venice with his mentor John Ruskin who commissioned him to paint copies of a number of Venetian Renaissance works. He returned home via Paris where he saw more Venetian paintings in the Louvre (which he had previously visited in 1855 and 1859). In particular he would have seen there the famous Concert Champêtre, then thought to have been the work of Giorgione but now considered to be by his pupil Titian, showing a group of figures in a verdant landscape with a musical theme. His subsequent style was highly influenced by these experiences and in 1865 he produced a Giorgionesque watercolour – a ‘prototype’ of this painting – which was purchased by William Graham, a wealthy Scottish businessman and Member of Parliament.
Graham became a trusted advisor to Burne-Jones and he also had a tangential influence on the artist’s output in that his taste for richly coloured romantic compositions ensured that Burne-Jones continued to paint in a ‘Venetian’ style even when his output had otherwise become more subdued in tone. Graham later commissioned Burne-Jones to paint an enlarged oil version of the 1865 watercolour and this is the painting now owned by the Metropolitan.
It is one of the most ravishingly beautiful paintings produced by Burne-Jones. Three figures are set in an exquisite landscape – a timeless realm of verdant pasture, solid vernacular architecture and lovingly tended garden flowers – an English Arcadia. An ethereal evening light illuminates the scene triggering memories in us all of those precious transient moments at the waning of a summer day when the world seems at its most serene.
There is no psychological contact between the three protagonists – they are wrapped in their own thoughts – the lovelorn knight’s unfocused gaze extends to infinity as does that of the musician (even as her hands are busy depressing keys and controlling the music manuscript against the slight breeze which plays in her hair and Cupid’s cloak). Cupid, languorously engaged in working the organ bellows, has his eyes closed. Their wistful demeanour enhances the mood of delicious nostalgia – a yearning for an unattainable domain of blissful tranquility and contentment, or as Burne-Jones put it ‘… a land no-one can define or remember, only desire.’
Cupid (or perhaps he represents a personification of Love) looks as though he might be lifted straight from a painting by Botticelli. But his shift of rich red echoed in the sleeves of the knight and the foreground display of flowers betray the lingering influence of Giorgione and Titian. The knight’s armour however is pure Burne-Jones – a fabulous conflation of late medieval craftsmanship and highly romanticised personal invention. The splendid ivory gown of the musician and the intense ultramarine cushion upon which she kneels provide the perfect foil for the flanking concentrations of red – the inclusion of a beautifully painted blue iris picked out against the knight’s metallic chain mail chimes in with the cushion as do the curious wings of Cupid.
The unresolved nature of the piece ensures that we weave our own thoughts and imaginings into his world, a world which Burne-Jones said was ‘a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light ever shone…’ He never ceased to search for this land through his art for he said it was ‘too beautiful not to be true.’
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1869 Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Grenouillère, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
1871 Edgar Degas: The Rehearsal, Glasgow, Burrell Collection
1872 Paul Cézanne: House of the Hanged Man, Paris, Musée d’Orsay