If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Europe 1800 - 1900

Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 4

Lesson 2: The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 1884 (Tate Britain, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(jazzy music) Female: Here we are in the Tate looking at a beautiful painting by Edward Burne-Jones called King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid from 1884. Male: It's a really tall painting. Female: It's very vertical. I was thinking about that just as we were standing here, and how unusual that verticality is in art history, although there's another painting of similar verticality next to it by Burne-Jones called The Golden Stairs. It made me wonder what it was about that kind of verticality that appealed to him. Male: The vertical format really allows him to do some interesting things compositionally. It allows him to stand the lance up on the right side of the canvas, and it allows for this interesting kind of movement, I think, with our eyes upward. I sort of step into those stairs and then I travel up the length of the male body, through his gaze to her and then up again to the figures at the top. Female: Who direct your gaze again back down to the beggar maid. The story here is that we have King Cophetua, an African king, who has not been interested in women until he's met this very, very beautiful woman who is a beggar. Here he's shown seated at her feet. He's removed, I think significantly, removed his crown, and he's holding it in his hands. His shield and lance are rested on that right side. He looks up at her, and she looks out at us. She doesn't return his gaze. Male: It's a wildly interesting subject, because it's really about the power of love and the way it trespasses over social structures. What would that have meant in the 19th century? Female: That's a good question. This is very much a kind of ideal, romantic image, a kind of chivalrous, Medieval image. Male: Absolutely. It seems very chaste in that way. It's a pretty quiet painting. Female: What's striking me is the space itself. Are those stairs, I mean those are stairs, but what kind of odd stairs lead up to essentially nothing at the top of the stairs? Male: It's just this enclosed space. Female: It's almost like stairs that kind of form a throne at the top. Male: It is like a throne, or almost like a little alter. Female: It made me think that one of the things that appealed to him about the narrowness of the shape of this canvas is the way that he can compress the space and make it not a kind of perspectival space. It is a space, that makes sense, but one that's sort of crowded and cramped. and rather mysterious. It reminded me a little bit of Northern Renaissance painting. Male: Interesting. It's almost like a little bit of a stage for this enactment. Female: There's so much gold here. It contrasts with, of course, her plainness, right? Male: Yes. Female: And the simplicity of what she's wearing. We can see her poverty in very stark contrast to the wealth of the palace where the king lives. Male: But what that does is it means that because she has no artifice, it's her natural beauty, her innate beauty that we look at and that is meaningful to him. I think in that is importance of moral aspect. That notion that one has to look beyond artifice and really recognize true beauty, I think, is critical. It seems to me that would have been important to these artists. Female: Absolutely. I think that idea of recognizing that truth lies beyond the material world with all of its visual appeal. It's sort of a little bit like Burne-Jones is giving us something that draws our eye almost as much as she does, but she wins. All that gold is wrought and engraved. It's almost like we're being tempted. It's like a moral dilemma for the viewer, drawing our eye to it. You want to get up close to the painting and look at all those details that are in that gold that's glistening. But then we have this sort of idea of truth and beauty that are more important than the things that appeal superficially to the eye. Male: So that king really functions for us as the lead. He's taken off his crown. He looks past that and sees her. We are, in a sense, to do the same. Female: I think that kind of moral aspect to that rings very true as a Victorian painting; that little lesson that's here about what's important. (jazzy music)