A Painting A Day In Support of the NEA: Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin (1872-77)


My protest of Trump's proposal to cut funding to the NEA and other arts organizations continues. Every day I will post a great work of art as a reminder of what could easily be lost in the shuffle of more "useful" government spending.
Edward Burne-Jones' "The Beguiling of Merlin" (1872-77) captures the Victorian love of voluptuous beauty as well as the allure of Arthurian legends and romances (as Tennyson would immortalize in his series of poems, Idylls of the King). Jones is one of the later painters in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was a loose confederation of artists and poets who sought to capture artistic themes and worlds before the Renaissance through a distinctly Victorian/late Romantic prism. This painting is one of the most celebrated and beautiful: the colors and textures alone make this work beguiling, full of dreamy yellows, greens, and blues, as well as the delicate flesh of Morgan's feet and neck and Merlin's hands. It's the kind of painting you could take a bath in--cool and comforting yet warm and inviting.
Everything is languid and dreamy, capturing the moment when Morgay le Fay (or Nimue) ensnares Merlin in a hawthorn bush so she can steal his book of spells. That's the framework for this painting, which really seems to be about something else: the pair's eyes are locked together, Morgan holding the book away from her body as if no longer as enticed by its charms. Merlin, too, seems a quite willing captive, and rather than being caught, he seems to be luring her in. His pose is almost humorous, as he leans back, legs crossed, while he seems to crook his finger as if to summon her to the branch beside him. Clearly, she is torn--she wants the spells, but she wants him, more. Both have become ensnared in a spell neither one of them cast--love and desire--and Morgan seems to realize that all of her plans have come to naught. In the end, love always wins, and the steps Morgan seems to be taking away from Merlin are arrested in mid-flight. The next step, we imagine, will be back to him, with the the book on the ground, and herself in his arms.
Note, too, the binding of her hair with an elaborate headdress: she was in love with him from the start, though convinced herself it was only his spells she was after. Now, with him helpless and the power in her hands, she can't even remember why she stole it. She was caught from the start, and Merlin assures her that being "beguiled" isn't such a bad thing...in fact, to be free is infinitely worse.

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