Tag Archives: The Baleful Head

Mythological Model – Julia vs. Maria

I wasn’t originally going to do this post, but I’ve had an interesting and enjoyable exchange with a gentleman named Erick Verran. He suggested to me that the model for the Perseus cycle (more specifically The Baleful Head) by Edward Burne-Jones could have been Julia Stephen, another Pre-Raphaelite model, rather than Maria Zambaco. This intrigued me, so I looked up information about Julia and was immediately struck by the similarities between her and the figures in the paintings.

julia-stephen-1

julia-stephen-2

Furthermore, searches for both women turn up  some of the same paintings. As yet another added item of interest, Julia Stephen was the mother of Virginia Woolf.  So what is the identity of the model in the Perseus cycle? Rather than an art scholar, I’m a biology professor messing around in my spare time, so I was reduced to analyzing profiles of chins and noses, which led me to favor, albeit irresolutely, Maria. This effort was complicated by my inability to find any photographs of Maria Zambaco, and Erick graciously sent me the following from a biography of Edward BurneJones titled The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012) by Fiona MacCarthy.

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Notice the caption (click on the image). It states that these photographs are of a young Maria Zambaco and goes on to imply that her portrayals by Edward Burne-Jones apparently involve a certain amount fanciful embellishment. These certainly seem inconsistent also with appraisals by various of her contemporaries in which she is described as strikingly beautiful. They also appear inconsistent with portraits of her by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (shown in previous posts in this series). By comparison her features seem rounded and less angular. Please don’t judge me as a chauvinist. I understand that standards of beauty are debatable and overly narrow, but the paintings of Maria Zambaco and the aforementioned appraisals seem to fall within stereotypes of beauty for both that era and the present.

Then I was reminded of something I ran across by accident on the internet: photos of Jennifer Connelly at different ages in her career. I selected a couple of examples for this post.

jcy

jco

Notice that her face becomes noticeably leaner as she ages. The difference is even more pronounced in earlier photos. Keep in mind also that the photographs of Maria were from a time period when styles of technique and clothing could obscure the perception of feminine features. Of course, this does not change the fact that the photographs of Julia are rather striking. This leaves me with a problem of identification which is complicated by two factors: the tendency of an artist to make alterations to suit his subject matter and my continued inability to find photographs of Maria from the appropriate time period.

Finally, I did some cross-checking of dates and found that Julia was married in 1867 (one year after Edward and Maria met) and that the Perseus cycle was painted later during a time when Burne-Jones was almost exclusively using Maria as a model. By now, you are probably realizing that this is a rambling approach that proves nothing. In my exchanges with Erick, I had the nagging sense that I was out of my depth. Perhaps out of ignorance, I am still inclined to think that Maria was the model for the Perseus cycle and the series about Saint George and the Dragon (for which Julia is also sometimes credited as Sabra), but this is based on internet searches rather than real scholarship.

Sabra being led to the sacrifice
Sabra being led to the sacrifice
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

I will happily stand corrected if I have run afoul of a more definite identification.

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (2)

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.

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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.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

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.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

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.

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

In this visual re-telling of Phyllis and Demophoon from The Metamorphoses 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.

zambaco-grave-2

zambaco-grave

In future posts, I will re-cap some of the paintings in which she is cast as various characters from mythology.

Mythology on Canvas (Part 11)

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.

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burn-Jones
The Rock of Doom by Edward Burn-Jones

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.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones

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.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

Different paintings starting next week…