This week’s offering is the Perseus series painted by Edward Burne-Jones and featuring Maria Zambaco as model. In the first painting, Perseus receives his call from the goddess, Athena. It looks as if Maria was used as the face model for both characters.
Her apparent profile (as Perseus) is seen again in the next painting…
… and again in the next. Her face also appears on at least two (possibly all three) of the Hesperides (sea nymphs), for which she surely was used as the body model as well.
She seems also to have been a model for the Gorgon, Medusa, shown atypically without snakes in her hair. This approach of making a hideous figure hauntingly or morbidly beautiful adds poignancy to the next two paintings.
Maria is obviously Andromeda in the next sequence, in which Perseus finds her and rescues her from the sea serpent, Cetus.
Finally, we come to the last painting in the series. Andromeda is shown gazing at the head of Medusa reflected in a basin of water.
I covered this series in multiple posts earlier in my series, Mythology On Canvas. This was necessary because I gave more of the background for the actual myth, but I thought it would be good to visit this topic once again by showing all of the paintings together.
Next week: one more post on Maria Zambaco before changing topics.
The early Pre-Raphaelites allegedly had a fancy for using working class women as models and taking them on as their mistresses. I find myself asking “why this socio-economic group?” Perhaps it had to do with economic vulnerability and the likelihood of compliance. Edward Burne-Jones came along a bit later and continued this dubious tradition with one notable exception. Maria Zambaco was wealthy as well as artistically trained. Although she is featured in numerous paintings, I have been unable to find an actual photograph of her which shows her with any clarity. I’m always interested in seeing the reality behind fanciful imagery when actual people are involved.
The above photograph was claimed by one source on the internet to be of Maria, but the name at the bottom doesn’t look right. I believe it is actually that of one of her cousins.
Burne-Jones is said to have been in a loveless (at least physically) marriage with his wife, Georgia Burne-Jones. She had experienced difficulty in the birth of their most recent child, and they had ceased having physical relations. When Edward was commissioned by Zambaco’s mother to paint her daughter, he very well could have been susceptible to having the affair which lasted at least until 1869. He has been described as both indecisive as well as oddly possessive of the women (including relatives) in his life.
He idealized his mistress (some of his descriptive quotes of their relationship in mythological terms struck me as inanely disturbing), and he made plans to leave his wife. The affair was discovered, causing a scandal, and he backed out. Maria attempted to get him to agree to a joint suicide pact by taking laudanum. When this was unsuccessful, she threatened to jump into Regents Canal, and his efforts to restrain her resulted in such an hysterical scene that the police were called.
There is speculation that the affair did not end there, that Zambaco futilely tried to start up a relationship with Auguste Rodin in Paris, and/or that Burne-Jones made some pointless attempts at resuming the affair. At any rate, he continued to use her as a model, but the nature of the characters she portrayed changed. In the following painting, she appears as the temptress, Nimue. On closer observation, what look like snakes can be seen in her hair.
Now contrast that role with her character in the next painting from the Perseus series (done earlier). Here, she is gazing on a reflection of the head of Medusa which is held by Perseus. Oddly enough, the profiles of the two figures are similar, which makes me think that she might have been a model for both of them.
So she seems to have morphed from rescued innocent in the above painting (which was completed before the affair ended) to the semblance of a treacherously attractive Gorgon in the previous painting, which is one of the last in which she modeled for this artist. Similarly psychological underpinnings have been attributed to the next painting, also one of the last in which Maria Zambaco sat for Edward Burne-Jones.
In this visual re-telling of Phyllis and Demophoon from TheMetamorphoses by Ovid, the man appears to be recoiling from the aggressively amorous woman as she emerges from a tree. That particular element of revulsion is not part of the account I read of this story, and significance has been attached to it by some observers.
All of this brings me to these photographs of the grave of Maria Zambaco in London’s West Norwood Cemetery, where she was buried under her original family name. For me, these pictures serve as a grim reminder of where all carnal passion ultimately ends.
In future posts, I will re-cap some of the paintings in which she is cast as various characters from mythology.
The Perseus Series by Edward Burne-Jones (continued):
When her mother inappropriately (according to the convoluted etiquette of the gods) boasts of Andromeda’s beauty, this offends Poseidon. He inundates the coast of Aeithiopia (a fanciful Ethiopia) and sends the sea serpent, Cetus, to plague that country. The citizenry and rulers (i.e. her parents!) settle upon the “obvious” solution of offering Andromeda as a sacrifice to Cetus. Enter Perseus to rescue the naked (of course) maiden while she is chained to a rock at water’s edge.
He kills the sea serpent and frees Andromeda. In the following picture, The Doom Fulfilled, the action to the right is contrasted with the relaxed, almost reposeful stance of Andromeda.
All works out well in the end, and Perseus marries Andromeda. In The Baleful Head (the last painting of the series), we see a scene from the nineteenth century poem which I mentioned in Part 8. I now know that it is titled The Doom of King Acrisius and was written by William Morris (Thank you, Nevil Warbrook.). Perseus is showing Andromeda the head of Medusa by its reflection in what appears to be a bird bath or outdoor wash basin. Note that this time the hair of the Gorgon is shown as consisting of snakes.
For the next several posts, I will comment on the Perseus series by Edward Burne-Jones . These paintings are based not strictly on the story from ancient Greek mythology but also on a rather florid nineteenth century poem whose title and author at present escape my memory. Take, for example, the first painting in the series: The call of Perseus.
In looking up the details of the legend, I could find no mention of what this picture depicts, so I am assuming this scene came from the poem. The actual background is that the demigod Perseus was the son of Zeus and a mortal named Danae. Later on in the story, Perseus shields his mother from an amorous king under whose hospitality they are living. In an effort to disgrace Perseus, this king creates an occasion for various men to give him horses as gifts. Perseus (“of course, of course” for those who might recognize this phrase) has no horse but offers to fulfill any wish that the king might lay upon him. He is assigned the seemingly impossible task of bringing back the head of Medusa, a Gorgon with snakes for hair. Upon the mere sight of her, onlookers turn to stone.