Mythology on Canvas (Part 7)

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones
The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

This week’s painting by Edward Burne-Jones is titled The Tree of Forgiveness. Like the painting featured in Part 3 of this series, it shows a woman emerging from a tree, this time to embrace a man. It was completed in 1882, but an earlier watercolor version had been exhibited in 1870 and had drawn criticism because the man was portrayed with frontal nudity. That this was also true of the female figure seems to have escaped notice. Perhaps the crossing of her right arm across one breast proved a saving grace. At any rate, the oil painting shown here resolved the earlier problem by adding a wisp of fabric. I also once read that some nineteenth century viewers were offended by the apparent aggressiveness of the woman.

This painting has as its subject the story of Phyllis and Demaphoon as told by Ovid in his Heroides. Having promised to marry Phyllis, Demaphoon went away for a period of time lasting long enough that Phyllis killed herself. She was pitied by the gods, who turned her into an almond tree. On his belated return, Demaphoon learned of all this, found the tree, and embraced it in his anguish. It immediately blossomed, and Phyllis emerged to embrace and forgive him.

In terms of composition, the graceful positioning of the human figures, the tree trunk, and the almond blossoms create a visual and perhaps symbolic beauty. The blossoms seem to wrap around the heads and shoulders of the two lovers. The floating or windswept aspect of the woman’s hair adds to the sense of motion.

Readers of this and last week’s post might have noticed the similarity of the female figures in the featured paintings. The model is allegedly Maria Zambaco, with whom Jones had an affair. Both were married (she formerly, he currently) and some have evidently interpreted the painting (in light of this information) to wonder if the artist is expressing regret. While the withdrawing posture and alarmed expression of Demaphoon may or may not be consistent with this assumption, they at least add a curious subtlety to the impression left on the viewer.

Maria Zambaco also appears in some of the paintings of the Perseus series, which I will begin examining next week.

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