Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A. (1833-1898)

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt., A.R.A. (1833-1898)

The Challenge in the Wilderness

oil on canvas
51 x 38in. (129.5 x 96.5cm.)
The artist's first studio sale; Christie's, 16 July 1898, lot 80 (255 gns. to Agnew)
Sir John T. Middlemore
With Hartnoll & Eyre, London, 1973 (Catalogue 28, no.9)
Burne-Jones's autograph work-list (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), under 1875 and 1894
Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, 1973, p.156, caption to fig.233, and pl.39
John Christian, 'A Fine Late Burne-Jones', Christie's Review of the Season, 1978, pp.80-1
Julian Hartnoll (ed.), The Reproductive Engravings after Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1988, p.50
Birmingham, City Art Gallery, on loan from the Middlemore Trustees prior to its sale in 1973
London, Hayward Gallery, Southampton and Birmingham (Arts Council), Burne-Jones, 1975-6, no.191
Burne-Jones and his Followers, exh. circulated in Japan by the Tokyo Shimbun, 1987, no.30

Lot Essay

During the later 1860s Burne-Jones and William Morris planned a lavishly illustrated edition of Morris's Earthly Paradise. In the event the scheme proved too ambitious, and the book was published without illustrations 1868-70. However, the numerous designs that Burne-Jones had made for it were by no means wasted, providing a bank of compositional ideas on which he was to draw for easel paintings until the end of his life.

The present picture is based on one of the forty-seven illustrations to 'The Story of Cupid and Psyche' (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) which he designed in 1865. To gain possession of Psyche, with whom he has fallen in love, Cupid resorts to a cruel strategy. Anxious to know why Psyche has not found a husband, her father sends emissaries to consult the oracle of Apollo. Cupid persuades Apollo to answer that the girl is destined to marry a ravening monster, and must be taken to a certain hill-top to await her fate. When she has been abandoned and fallen asleep, she will be wafted by Zephyrus to Cupid's sumptuous palace.

Burne-Jones treated the 'bridal' procession in a pair of linked compositions, one showing Psyche accompanied by her sorrowing father and attendant maidens, the other a group of figures blowing trumpets and carrying torches. Both underwent further development. They were included in the frieze of 'Cupid and Psyche' subjects that Burne-Jones, assisted by Walter Crane, painted in the 1870s for the dining room of George Howard's London house, 1 Palace Green (now in the Birmingham Art Gallery). They were also interpreted as separate paintings, the first becoming The Wedding of Psyche (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), exhibited at the New Gallery in 1895, and the group of trumpeters being re-cast as the present picture. Burne-Jones may have started this as early as 1875 when he noted in his work-record that he had 'designed trumpeters for Psyche's procession.' A careful drawing of the three heavily-draped figures, probably made at this time, was sold in these Rooms on 15 May 1984, lot 177. However the picture is not heard of again until 1894 when (again according to the work-record) he 'worked on the Challenge in the Wilderness.' By now he probably thought of it as an independant painting, divorced from the 'Cupid and Psyche' context to which its new title has no relevance. At all events, it remained unfinished at his death in June 1898, appearing at his studio sale at Christie's the following month.

The picture is a fine example of the intensely personal style that Burne-Jones evolved in the last years of his life. As early as 1886 Henry James had described his paintings as 'pictured abstractions', growing 'colder and colder ..., less and less observed', and this trend continued in the nineties. He was aware that his popularity was waning and foresaw the eclipse from which he would suffer so grievously in this century. His last important exhibited picture, Love Leading the Pilgrim (Tate Gallery), was not well received when it appeared at the New Gallery in 1897, and returned to the studio unsold. His reaction, like that of so many artists at the end of their careers, was to turn his back on the outside world and paint more and more for himself, evoking an uncompromising vision of wraith-like figures in barren landscapes and indulging with ever increasing freedom his love of metallic forms and sophisticated linear rhythms. Nowhere are these given fuller expression than in the drapery of the three trumpeters, closely based on the drawing of 1875 but realised in the painting with a much greater degree of abstraction, in which the cracked and broken folds seem to take on a life of their own, dominating the picture and , setting up an exciting visual dissonance. It is often recalled that the young Picasso was attracted to reproductions of Burne-Jones's work in Barcelona in the 1890s, but more telling here is the fact that among Burne-Jones's few admirers in the 1940s was the Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis. In an article published in 1940, Robin Ironside argued that if the British had not been seduced by Impressionism and repudiated Burne-Jones, his later work might have prepared them for Post-Impressionism which, in the event, they found so disconcerting. In the light of the present picture even the shock of Cubism might have been mitigated.

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