The painting of the day: Edward Burne-Jones' The Mirror of Venus (1875). Burne-Jones is one of my favorite painters, as he shamelessly celebrates the voluptuous, late Romantic values of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Such paintings fell out of critical favor throughout the 20th century, though art lovers have always responded to sheer beauty and drama of these images--and notably this one, which has no specific theme other than a hypothetical gathering of Venus and her hand-maidens before a pool of water. Let the allegorical associations commence...
Many people wonder what "Pre-Raphaelite" means, and basically, it was a movement that wanted to uncover the artistic and thematic traditions prior to the Renaissance. They adored Greek, Gothic and Medieval subjects, though ironically they approached these from a Renaissance perspective, evoking the luminous colors and shapes of Botticelli and Raphael himself. Following their spiritual mentor, Ruskin, and composed of many artists-poets such as Rossetti and Morris, the movement sought to combat the excesses of Industrialism with visions of a purer, more human time where beauty and magic existed hand-in-hand. The best literary equivalent of their work would be the poems of Robert Browning (who often evoked painters in his work), and a fitting soundtrack would be the music of French impressionism--Debussy (esp. La Mer, Nocturnes) or especially Ravel (La Valse, Tombeau de Couperin, etc.), or even the British Impressionist Arnold Bax (Tintagel especially).
But back to this painting: the difficulty of examining a work of Burne-Jones is the seduction factor. It's so amazingly caloric in terms of beauty that you are apt to simply drown in the images and call it a day. The layout of bodies is almost balletic in how they rise and fall, assuming stylized and theatrical movements. The flowing garments seem plucked out of a Greek statue, though they hug the body in a distinct late 19th century manner, setting off the models to best effect (and the Pre-Raphaelites all had their favorite models, many of whom they married or had affairs with). Venus is the only one standing, clad in the blue of a morning sky, but looking curiously forlorn or defeated. She takes no glory in her court and almost seems to lament their fate as she looks down on them looking down on themselves. The girls, too, stare somewhat curiously into the pond, seeking an answer which seems to elude them. Only one girl looks up to Venus as if to say, "what is the meaning of this, mighty goddess?" And Venus, having done and see it all, doesn't even try to respond. "You'll find out soon enough," she seems to suggest.
Naturally, the legend of Narcissus is evoked by this image, with the young, beautiful women staring back at their own reflections. Also of note are the lotus pads in the pond, alluding to the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey, where the inhabitants of a far-flung island eat the lotus flowers and fall into an apathetic existence, never seeking to flee or to question their existence (this was also the title of a poem by Tennyson, another poet allied to the Pre-Raphaelites). Is Burne-Jones suggesting that to be young IS to be a lotus-eater, intoxicated by the narcotic of youth, and assuming that all things will come to you in time--which you have an endless supply of? Or is the painting a more general allegory on the nature of beauty itself--that it's little more than a pool of water which, when disturbed by the slightest breeze, all but washes away? The fact that the painting is itself so beautiful is part of the message: we are so dazzled by the surface of things that we forget to look beyond, or ahead, where our true destiny lies.