The subject is taken from the story of 'Blue Beard' in Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. Blue Beard's unfortunate wife is seen putting the key in the door of the forbidden closet where her husband's former wives lie murdered. 'At the door of the closet she paused for a moment, calling to mind her husband's prohibition and reflecting that some trouble might fall upon her for her disobedience; but the temptation was so strong that she could not resist'.
Dating from the autumn of 1862, the watercolour is the earliest of several works of this period for which Burne-Jones found inspiration in the fairy-stories of Perrault and the brothers Grimm. It was followed in 1863 by the watercolour Cinderella (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and three sets of designs for tiles illustrating 'Cinderella', 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Beauty and the Beast'. These tile designs, which William Morris carried out as overmantels for Birket Foster's house, 'The Hill', at Witley in Surrey, are in a quaint Germanic style that reflects the influence of the Grimms' illustrator, Ludwig Richter. One is even based on Hans Baldung's well-known woodcut, The Sleeping Groom. The designs for 'Sleeping Beauty' contain the seeds of the famous Briar Rose paintings, finally bought to triumphant fruition in 1890.
There is nothing quaint or Germanic about the present picture. On the contrary, with its rich, warm colours and Renaissance costume, the picture exemplifies the 'Venetian' idiom that had prevailed in Burne-Jones's circle since the late 1850s, finding expression not only in his own work but that of his master D.G. Rossetti and such friends and acquaintances as Val Prinsep, Simeon Solomon, Leighton and even Whistler. For Burne-Jones there were perhaps two main forces at work. One was the influence of G.F. Watts, whose style was based on a dual allegiance to Titian and the Greek sculptor Pheidias. The other was John Ruskin's ongoing attempts to shape his development, and the part that the great Venetian masters played in the critic's aesthetic-cum-moral value-system following his conversion to humanism in 1858. It is no coincidence that Fatima was painted only weeks after Burne-Jones returned from a visit with Ruskin to north Italy in the summer of 1862, when he had found himself copying works by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto under his mentor's guidance.
Previous experiences were not forgotten either. In 1859, visiting Italy for the first time, not actually with Ruskin on this occasion but certainly at his instigation, Burne-Jones had copied Titian's portrait La Bella in the Pitti Palace in Florence. Fatima's puffed and ruched velvet sleeves perhaps echo those of Titian's anonymous sitter. But a more persistant memory was Giulio Romano's portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court. There is documentary evidence that Burne-Jones borrowed motifs from this for his watercolour Sidonia von Bork of 1860 (Tate Britain), notably the serpentine-patterned dress but also the background with its open door and advancing and retreating figures. Similarly, the figure in Fatima wears a turban like the one worn by Isabella (she was famous for this style of head-dress, known as a zazara), and there is a further reminiscence of the portrait's background in the dark corridor, ending in a doorway, that stretches eerily behind her. No doubt the context for these formal connections is Burne-Jones's concern in both Sidonia (a scene of witchcraft) and Fatima to evoke a mood of evil and suspense. Whether intentionally or not, Giulio Romano had given his portrait an unmistakable air of sinister forboding.
Burne-Jones's obsession with horror stories was a legacy of the medievalism cultivated by Rossetti and his followers in the years 1856-8 and the 'gothick' element in Romanticism in which both Rossetti and Burne-Jones were steeped. This tendency was one of the things that worried Ruskin, who was increasingly conscious of the harm done to society by art which pandered to man's morbid attraction to the gruesome. This was why, a few years later, he was so interested in the way Burne-Jones treated stories of early Christian virgin martyrs, urging him to shun their more painful associations, or at any rate to refer to them symbolically, while presenting the saints as icons of such 'constant' values as beauty, serenity and innocence. For an example, see lot 216 in this catalogue.
The subject was probably discussed during Ruskin's visit to north Italy with Burne-Jones and his wife in the summer of 1862. After all, the works Burne-Jones copied for Ruskin at this time included not only examples of the great Venetians but frescoes by Bernardino Luini, the Milanese master whom Ruskin regarded as a supreme exponent of the 'constant' ideal. That conversation did indeed follow these lines is implied by a letter that Georgiana Burne-Jones wrote to Ruskin after their return, mentioning the progress of Fatima. 'He has begun a watercolour...of Bluebeard's wife putting the key in the closet door. It is a tall, narrow picture, only containing Mrs Bluebeard with a long passage behind her...Edward is sitting by, and has just looked up to charge me not to tell you about Bluebeard's wife, because you will think that the skeletons are the principal features, I reply that his warning comes too late, for I have told you'. Ironically enough, it was probably Ruskin who had encouraged Burne-Jones to illustrate fairy-tales, a subject on which he was an authority and was to write about in an introduction to an edition of the Grimms' stories published in 1868. But on this occasion there was clearly a conflict of interest.
The picture's first owner was James Anderson Rose, a solicitor who had offices in Salisbury Street, Strand, and a house on Wandsworth Common. Rose was a keen collector of pictures as well as of Oriental, English and Continental ceramics. In the early 1860s he was buying not only from Burne-Jones but Rossetti, Madox Brown, Frederick Sandys and other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. He had seven Burne-Joneses in all, the others including Buondelmonte's Wedding (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), the most elaborate of the artist's early pen-and-ink drawings, and the early watercolour version of Laus Veneris (private collection).
However, on 23 March 1867 Rose sold his pictures at Christie's. We do not know the reason, but it seems likely, as Hilary Underwood has suggested, that he had lost money when the Overend, Gurney bank crashed in 1866. All the Burne-Joneses found buyers except Fatima, which had a reserve of £20 and was bought in at £15-2-0. Other bought-in items were retained by the vendor and surfaced again at his posthumous sale, held at Christie's on 5 May 1891, but this was not the case with Fatima, which somehow came into the possession of George Howard, later Earl of Carlisle. Ten years younger than Burne-Jones and a keen amateur painter himself, Howard had met the artist in the spring of 1865 and was to become one of his closest friends and most consistent patrons. He lent Fatima to his memorial exhibition at the New Gallery in the winter of 1898-9, and it descended in his family until sold anonymously in 1981.
There are studies for the figure's hands in a sketchbook now at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (no. 339 in the 1975-6 exhibition cited above). According to Burne-Jones's autograph work-record, he painted two versions of the watercolour in 1862. The second, which was smaller (20½ x 10 in.), was bought by an unidentified patron called Lucas, and was lent by Mrs Lucas, probably his widow, to Burne-Jones's retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery in the winter of 1892-3 (no. 15). It now seems to be lost. Like so many of Burne-Jones's early watercolours, the picture was copied by his follower Edward Clifford, as well as being mentioned in his whimsical, anonymous, and privately printed reminiscences, Broadlands as It Was.