The story of King Cophetua is told in an early seventeenth-century ballad which later formed the basis for a short poem by Tennyson. One day, the king whilst idly looking out of his window saw among the beggars at the palace gate a girl of such exquisite beauty that he had her brought to him and immediately vowed to make her his queen.
Burne-Jones depicts this meeting: the young maid sits wide eyed in the sumptuous surroundings of Cophetua’s palace seemingly struck dumb by this decidedly unexpected turn of events. The king sits at her feet equally stunned by her beauty. Two singers self-consciously study their music perhaps awaiting a sign from Cophetua or maybe just waiting for him to come to his senses. But they are all lost in a timeless moment — beauty has prevailed over privilege and power.
They sit in a highly implausible setting. Of course we are in the midst of a fairy tale, but it is difficult to envisage the precise use to which this room could be put. And yet one feels that it would be possible to feel at home in it; drapes and cushions give it a comfortable ambience. Through the open door or window the sun is setting, enhancing that sense of a golden yet evanescent experience.
The maid is clad in a very curious outfit — not exactly rags, a touch threadbare perhaps, but certainly not the usual Burne-Jonesian loose-fitting robe either. Apparently he agonised over her attire — she must be suitably down at heel but on the other hand not too beggarly lest the king should be put off. According to the ballad, Cophetua was African and so Burne-Jones has given him a Moorish complexion with tightly curled black hair. The king is kitted out in a mythic suit of armour which looks as though it has been partly modelled on the scales of a large (possibly prehistoric) fish. His crown, which he has taken off as if in the presence of a higher being, was based on a metalwork model specially made to the artist’s specifications.
Burne-Jones visited Italy on four occasions. He greatly admired Botticelli as well as Michelangelo. But here the highly decorated architectural setting in which the king and the maid sit betrays Burne-Jones’ admiration for Mantegna and especially Carlo Crivelli.
Yet Burne-Jones mixes these Italian Renaissance influences with his highly personal medievalism. And this personal vision became immensely popular during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. When this picture was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884 it was received with rapturous reviews. The Times thought that it was ‘not only the finest work that Mr Burne-Jones has ever painted, but one of the finest ever painted by an Englishman’. This sort of opinion was not confined to Britain. In France it attracted such admiration that the artist was awarded the Légion d’honneur.
The best explanation for the secret behind Burne-Jones’ appeal comes from the man himself. His pictures, he said, are ‘a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will be… in a land no-one can define, or remember, only desire’.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1883 Arnold Böcklin: Odysseus and Calypso; Basel, Kunstmuseum
1886 Mary Cassatt: Young Woman Sewing; Paris, Musée d'Orsay