Edward Francis Burney, although best known for his multi-figured, satirical depictions of contemporary life such as An Elegant Establishment for Young Ladies (Victoria and Albert Museum), also illustrated a number of classical, Biblical and literary subjects. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, with its quantity of highly-finished figures, brings these two elements together in a masterpiece of neo-classical watercolour painting. (For Burney see H. Hammelmann, Book Illustration in Eighteenth-Century England, New Haven and London, 1975, pp. 21-3.).
The wedding was a celebrated event in 6th and 5th Century B.C. mythological literature. Peleus, son of Aeacus, King of Aegina, after a series of misadventures, married the Nereid Thetis, daughter of the sea-god Nereus, after Zeus had renounced his interest in her on account of the prophecy that any son born to Thetis would become more powerful than the father. In addition Zeus was annoyed because Thetis had rejected his advances out of loyalty to her foster-mother Hera, wife of Zeus, and had vowed that Thetis, though immortal herself, would marry a mere mortal. In the event, the surviving son of the marriage was Achilles, hero of the Trojan War.
Hera, having matched Thetis with the noblest of mortals, prepared Peleus for Thetis's expected resistance to marrying a mortal by sending him to the cave of Cheiron, King of the Centaurs. There Peleus waylaid Thetis where she resisted him by turning herself into fire, water, a lion, a serpent and even a cuttle fish. Peleus, forewarned, overcame her resistance and gained her love.
Their wedding is the subject of the 64th poem by Catullus (circa 84-54 B.C.), an 'epyllion' or miniature epic in the Hellenistic manner of the group of New Poets (jeunesse dorée or, as Cicero called them, delicata iuventus) of whose circle in Rome Catullus was a member in the 7th and 6th decades B.C. Catullus is quoted as the source of our watercolour on the 20th Century (?) mount. Another source is Ovid, and the subject was frequently portrayed in Greek art.
According to different accounts Hera summoned all the Olympian gods to the wedding either outside Cheiron's cave on Mount Pelion or, according to Catullus, in a grand palace in Pharsala (Farsala) to the west of Mount Helion but also in Thessaly. Burney also seems to have relied on more than one source in his depiction of the various gods and other figures. The bridal pair sit in front of Cheiron's cave on the right, balanced by Zeus and Hera on their ivory thrones in the gateway of the palace. Hades drags Persephone from the underworld in the lower right-hand corner, with the Centaur Cheiron behind them. Poseidon emerges from the sea on the left with the two horses, Balius and Xanthus, that he brings as a wedding gift. Bacchus is shown to the left of centre, with Aphrodite and Cupid on his left. Ares and Athene are shown to the left of Peleus; Hephaestus, jealous of Ares' affair with Aphrodite, sits below Zeus and Hera. Apollo and Artemis, who according to some sources refused to attend the wedding, are shown in their chariots far away in the sky, while Hermes flies in from behind the mountain. Eris, who had not been invited, is shown furious on the right, carrying the apple of discord.