Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones(1833 - 1898)
Lord Hardinge of Penshurst; Thomas Agnew, Ltd., London (around 1970)
Private collection, Germany.
This study of three female nudes represents the three sea nymphs in the composition titled “The Arming of Perseus,” one of ten episodes in Burne-Jones’s incomplete cycle of paintings based on the Perseus myth. The “Arming of Perseus” composition survives in both a full-sized cartoon of 1877 (gouache or tempera on canvas, 152.8 x 126.4 cm, Southampton City Gallery, attached); and in the unfinished painting (oil on canvas, 153 x 127 cm, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, attached). Had they been completed, the ten paintings would have adorned the music room of the London residence of Arthur Balfour (later, Lord Balfour, the Conservative statesman), at 4, Carleton Gardens. Burne-Jones projected “The Arming of Perseus” as the second episode of the Persus cycle. Here, the sea- nymphs present Perseus with three gifts (from Athena, his half-sister) to assist him in his task of slaying the gorgon, Medusa: Hermes’ winged sandals; a helmet to make him invisible; and a goatskin pouch to hold the Medusa’s head.
It was in 1875 that Balfour, then a member of the “Souls”—a group of aristocratic gentlemen who embraced the Aesthetic movement of the Victorian era—commissioned the project. The Perseus theme, jointly agreed upon, was based William Morris’ treatment of the Perseus myth in his book, The Earthly Paradise of 1868-70. Between 1875 and 1877, Burne-Jones completed three full-scale schemes of the decorative project in watercolor (Tate Britain, attached), indicating the exact placement of each painting. As shown in these renderings, the project was to include decorative plaster reliefs surrounding the panels, as well as wallpaper based on the ‘Acanthus’ designs of William Morris. The artist worked on the paintings intermittently, and completed only four.
Throughout his career, Burne-Jones was a rigorous, painstaking draftsman who worked frequently from life. Apart from the Cuellar sheet, two graphite studies for the nymphs have been published (attached), one showing the group in their flowing drapery (private collection), the other, a nude study of the central figure (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum).