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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.

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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Queen Alexandria
    What do the two figures on the top represent?
    (4 votes)
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  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Yasemin Paçalıoğlu
    How is this painting exactly Pre-Raphaelite? Unlike the previous paintings, it doesn't seem very realistic at all. Millias created almost photographic paintings, but in this the figure of the woman is so abstract.
    (1 vote)
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    • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Grace
      Pre-Raphaelite paintings weren't as much about photographic realism as they were about staying true to the real nature of things. I addition, Pre-Raphaelite paintings used symbolism, as well as an amount of color that was unusual for their time. The actual prosess contributes, too: most Victorian paintings were done on a darker, brown ground while the Pre-Raphealites used a white ground which contributed to the vibrance of color. The Pre-Raphaelites also drew inspiration from plays, poetry, stories and myths. Shakespeare and Tennyson were two of their favorite subjects.
      That's just a few things that define Pre-Raphaelitism. I hope it helps!
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    In the picture of this painting where it hangs in the Tate, I see an elaborate frame. What are the aesthetics of framing?
    Since I'm working through the art history curriculum from beginning to end, I'm only now to the 19th century. so if this is addressed in a unit or video later on, I'm happy to skip right to it if someone would only be so kind as to direct me there.
    (2 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user caleb braggs
    Was he a Christian king? And if so; Why was he not married?
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Dr. Harris, you were wondering what sort of space this is and I have a theory. Judging from the lance and the armor that Caphetua is wearing I would think that this is perhaps part of stadium seating around a jousting arena. I think the subject matter is that of indeed a very cramped, but nonetheless private quarters that the "beggar maid" has been invited in to. What do you think?
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Lilli.c
    did aneyone notice that the woman had long red hair, was that just a coincidence, or did that have some symbolic meaning that i missed, or was not explained?
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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)