Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Edward Coley Burne-Jones | England 1833-1898 | Aurora 1896 | Oil on canvas 178 x 76cm | Purchased 1954 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Edward Coley Burne-Jones was closely associated with the latter phase of the pre-Raphaelite movement inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He met English designer and writer William Morris at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1852 and in 1861 became a founding member of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., which specialised in the design and production of stained glass, tapestries, fabric, wallpaper and carpets. Burne-Jones was enamoured of classical poetry, literature, mythology and Arthurian legend, which provided the sources for many of his designs and paintings.
From the early 1870s, following his third visit to Italy, Burne-Jones was influenced by the paintings of the Italian Quattrocento — particularly those by Botticelli and Mantegna — which can be seen in works such as Aurora. Aurora, the Roman mythical personification of dawn, is here depicted barefoot and with cymbals to wake the sleeping city as a soft dawn light rises behind rooftops and distant trees. It is likely that Burne-Jones’s interpretation of Aurora is based on a reading of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem Tithonus, which relates the tragic story of Aurora’s Greek iteration, Eos. Eos, the Greek goddess of dawn, took mortal lovers, one of whom was Tithonus, Prince of Troy. She asked that Zeus grant him immortality, which he did, but without the attendant gift of eternal youth. Tithonus aged and withered as Eos continued to herald the sun each day. In Tennyson’s poem, Tithonus’s immortality is granted by Aurora herself.
Like other pre-Raphaelite artists, Edward Coley Burne-Jones used contemporary models for his mythical subjects and imbued them with classical attributes. The face of Aurora in this work is an idealised portrait of Bessie Keene, one of the artist's models. The background path appears to have been developed from a sketch of a canal near the railway bridge at Oxford. The buildings, however, are fanciful and consistent with the atmosphere of dreamlike unreality that pervades Burne-Jones’s work.