Selene and Endymion [?] by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Graphite, paper, tondo, d 275 mm (10 13/16 inches). Signed bottom right: "EB-J." Provenance: Bought as Lot 31 Burne-Jones (Classical Figures) Burstow and Hewett, 24th July 2013.

Commentary by Paul Crowther

A portion of the picture's original frame has the monogram collector's stamp of Thomas Glen Arthur (1857-1907). It also states that the picture was bought from the dealers P. and D. Colnaghi. Arthur lived at Carrick House in Ayr, and became managing director of the large haberdashers firm started by his father. He was the first Scot to buy a work by Degas (At the Milliners Shop, a pastel from 1882) and appears to have bought and sold both modern and old master works. Arthur's library, and the pictures remaining at Carrick House were sold by Christie's in 1914. Dr. Simona Dolari of Christie's has confirmed that the present work was not amongst them. A further study of the catalogue suggests that many of his most important works may have been sold before the sale of the Carrick House pictures. There is no clear record of the present work in the Colnaghis' archives either, though these only begin with 1911. (The picture may have been mistakenly described as a Study for Merlin and Vivien—a work which Colnaghi's sold in 1920.)

The myth of Endymion has various forms. In the broadest terms, Endymion is a dweller on Mt. Latmos with whom Selene—the Moon Goddess—falls in love. She entreats Zeus to bewitch Endymion in an eternal sleep so that her light can shine on his beauty forever. The myth was popularized in a different form in John Keats's poem of the same name first published in 1818. (This work begins with one of the most the celebrated lines in British poetry—"A thing of beauty is a joy forever.") There are a number of treatments of Endymion in Victorian art. The most famous is G. F. Watts's oil painting finished in 1872 (in a private collection). Watts later did three more versions of Endymion, but the first is probably the most well-known through a widely distributed print of it made by Frank Short (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1892). Watts's painting is very strongly modelled in chiaroscuro giving it a paradoxical combination of feathery lightness (especially in the disposition of the moon goddess's body and drapery) and a pallid—yet stony—embodiment of the masses of both figures.

Burne-Jones's drawing is subtle in a different way. The picture's tondo format, and the elongated, slightly crescent-shaped arm of the Goddess suggest the power of the moon in illuminating and containing Endymion's beauty. This element of containment is of symbolic importance. The eternal sleep that preserves Endymion's beauty is, in effect, a kind of living death. In this respect, it is interesting that oleander flowers form an important part of the represented setting, compositional dynamics, and symbolic meaning of the picture. The oleander is a beautiful flower, but has poisonous physical properties. As in Endymion's fate, in other words, the oleander is a beauty closely subtended by death. This association is focussed further in the extremely delicate treatment of Endymion's face and body. True, he is asleep, but his expression—in conjunction with the slightly flaccid disposition of his limbs—is suggestive of the process of dying. Indeed, the drapery on the Goddess's gown and the sheets that surround Endymion accentuate this. They tend to loosely merge with one another and with the natural features of the landscape in a way that suggests a gradual slackening of organic vitality. Everything in the scene is absorbed by light from the Moon Goddess, and continues to exist only for the purpose of being illuminated by it. There is, in other words, only the appearance of life.

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 13.

Last modified 8 December 2014