Image permission and credit: The British Library
In the mid 1860s the artist had entered a time of disquiet and introspection. His search for wider experiences as a mature human being began. With his marriage at a critical stage, particularly after Georgiana suffered a miscarriage, and on encountering the more sophisticated and sexually complex figures of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon in addition to Rossetti, the artist in him became discontent with what his wife and a conventional marriage had to offer. At that moment he was commissioned to paint a portrait by Euphrosyne Cassavetti of her daughter Maria Zambaco, the estranged wife a Parisian doctor. Maria was an unusual person to find in respectable circles. She was liberated, talented, very beautiful and was considered “fast”. She broke through the reticence of the artist and a passionate affair ensued. Once again the work he produced directly relates to the circumstances in his life. For a while he eschews cloistral medieval themes and introduces sensual neoclassical figures with loosely fitting clothes that stress the body beneath. He had embarked upon this neo-classical phase from studying the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. Nudity begins to take its place in his paintings and caused notoriety when he exhibited “Phyllis and Demophoon” at the Watercolour Society in 1870, where the semi-nude Phyllis (Maria) clasps the explicitly nude son of Theseus and Phaedra. Overt sensuality was intolerable to mid-Victorian society and the work had to be withdrawn. Unperturbed Edward proceeded with his personal iconography to the point that in 1881 he repainted the work on a huge scale as “The Tree of Forgiveness”, where Maria, now totally naked, clasps Demophone, whose sexuality is discretely covered. Maria continued as his muse henceforward and either she or a model with similar features is often to be found within his works. “Love among the Ruins” (two versions 1870 & 1870-73) allegorises his mental state toward the end of the affair with Maria. Lovers clasped in an intimate embrace originated from a series of drawings he had made in the late 1860’s and placing them amidst classical ruins derives from an image found in the Hypnerotomachi, but Burne-Jones chose to play down the sexually charged atmosphere contained in the illustration to develop an elegiac painting quite distinct from this point of departure. “Love among the Ruins” became the artist’s public statement at this, the lowest point in his personal life. He exhibited it at the Dudley Gallery in 1873.
However, privately he painted his anguish in a work to be shown to no one outside his most intimate circle. “Souls by the Styx” describes, in an artistic language that the Victorian public could not possibly understand, the despair of lost souls trapped in limbo. Here Dante was the medieval source and the Renaissance supplied the foundation for his haunted figures. From this point forward he proceeded to overlay his medieval motives with those acquired from his study of Renaissance masters.