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Studying for a test? Prepare with these 3 lessons on Victorian art and architecture.
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(piano music playing) Steven: We're in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and we're looking at a lovely Burne-Jones' that's called Hope. It's an allegory in the Renaissance tradition. So often in Renaissance paintings, you see images that are personifications of virtues, but it's so interesting to see one at the very end of the 19th century. Beth: And we know that Burne-Jones really admired Renaissance art and had made a trip to Italy and was enthusiastic about all the great Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo and Botticelli and Gitotto. Steven: I really see Botticelli here and so it makes sense to me that this is a pose that would have been inspired by what he saw in Italy. Beth: And there's an interesting story behind this commission. Burne-Jones was asked by the patron to paint a dancing figure and when William Morris died, who was a very close friend and Burne-Jones wrote to the patron and asked if instead of doing a dancing figure, he could instead go back to an earlier watercolor that he had done of a figure of Hope and redo it in oil and that's what we're looking at here. Steven: So in some ways, this is a really personal image and when you know that story, it feels the lyricism of this painting, the kind of emotional power. So we have this beautiful, graceful figure, in some ways, she's still dancing, but you'll notice that she's changed. She's shackled. We know the situation is serious because that shackle around her ankle is placed just over some small flowers, which are periwinkle, which in antiquity was used to crown people who had been condemned to death. Beth: And so it's hard to feel hopeful, but I suppose that's the point of hope, is that one struggles to feel it against all odds and so the way that she's chained to the earth and yet reaches up toward the sky, but seems to successfully pull the sky down toward her. It's a really lovely metaphor for exactly the way that hope feels. Steven: Those words are really nice metaphor for the way in which the painting is actually structured. The painting is lyrical but it's full of specificity, the kind of specificity that we associate with the Pre-Raphaelites in general. Look, for instance, at the apple blossoms that she holds in her arm, a traditional symbol of hope. But there's a real specificity in the rendering of those apples and yet at the same time, the painting also allows for this completely dream-like idea of pulling the sky down and so you have the technical precision, but it also then, this pure fantasy. Beth: So in a way, she is really both earthbound and also transcendent as a figure of hope. Steven: The painting is wonderful also in that the artist takes advantage of the opportunity to metaphorically speak to the subject at hand, this notion of hope and the notion of bondage and I think one of the most beautiful examples of that is in her hair, which is both free and beautiful but also tied. Look at the way that it wraps around her neck and so it becomes a noose, but it's beautiful and it's loose and it could unbundle itself. Beth: It's interesting that Burne-Jones is [annoyed] through this painting, memorializing his relationship with his good friend, William Morris and so we can interpret Hope there for as hope for an afterlife, hope for meeting in heaven. It's interesting to me that Burne-Jones as a modern man in the modern industrial world, he's not representing Christ's resurrected from the tomb, but instead this allegorical figure that works in a modern world to speak of hope in all of its forms. Steven: And I find its format interesting. It's very tall and thin, as if it might be a panel in a stained glass window, but there's something almost gothic about its proportions. I also find it interesting that the museum displays it without glass and it recalls a letter that Burne-Jones wrote about this painting and about the patrons of this painting saying that they were not displaying it behind glass because of the bad reflections that it caused, but Burne-Jones was disappointed. He loved his paintings to be behind glass and thought it gave it a kind of a ethereal glazing as he called it and it speaks to his visual sensitivity. Beth: The composition is interesting, the very shallow space that the figure stands in so that she seems entrapped in this very tiny niche, the bars of the window behind her that entrap her, the lyricism of her body, those lovely curves formed by her hand moving down to her wrist, out to her elbow, back to her shoulder, across her other shoulder, this kind of curving lovely figure, based on figures from Botticelli, that's in such contrast to that grid behind her. Steven: Well, that's exactly it. All that is organic in the human body against all that is hard and cold in the architecture of the space that we create. Beth: And so maybe this is really a painting about contrasts, hope both being earthbound but turning toward heaven, the hard grid formed by the bars against the sinuousness of her body, the specificity of the earthly against the classical idealism. This is a painting that really unites opposites. (piano music playing)