Edward Burne-Jones: Paintings, Stained Glass & Biography

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What inspires you? In late 19th century England, some artists were inspired by medieval legends and lore. In this lesson, we will explore the paintings and stained glass of Edward Burne-Jones.

A Shift Into Art

Artists can be inspired by many things. Some look to the world around them for ideas. Others look to the past. In late 19th-century England, a group of artists took their inspiration from the art and lore of the Middle Ages. One of those artists was Edward Burne-Jones.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898) was born in Birmingham, England and didn't expect to pursue a career in art. He was pursuing a divinity degree at Exeter College, Oxford with plans of becoming a minister. This changed when he met fellow divinity student William Morris, who shared his love of poetry, art, and medieval literature. Both were also taken by the writing of art critic John Ruskin. The meeting shifted Burne-Jones away from religious life. He and Morris became good friends and eventually went into the art and design business together.

Around 1856, Burne-Jones met another influential figure, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti was an artist and a member of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists who formed a secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They rejected the academic art of the time and instead looked back to medieval and early Renaissance art up to the early 1500s for inspiration. Pre-Raphaelite paintings featured rich colors, flattened space, and strong linear emphasis with few shadows. They were also detailed and full of botanical elements, like flowers and vines.

Burne-Jones began studying under Rossetti in London. Then, in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Burne-Jones visited Italy twice. The art he saw on those trips greatly influenced his work. Meanwhile, William Morris had gone into architecture and design and was developing his own ideas about art and craftsmanship. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative art and design firm with other artists and designers including Burne-Jones. The company created furnishings for homes and churches, including stained glass windows, metalwork, and textiles, like carpets and tapestries. Burne-Jones became the primary stained glass designer.

Edward Burne-Jones and Stained Glass

Burne-Jones designed many stained glass windows for Morris's company, both for private estates and for churches throughout England. Some examples of churches with Burne-Jones windows include the Holy Trinity Church in London and St. Philip's Cathedral in Birmingham.

Early stained glass window by Burne-Jones, made around 1862
stained glass example

Unlike the solitary process of creating a painting, designing stained glass was a collaborative effort. Burne-Jones made a series of sketches to work out the composition. Then, he would create a larger detailed drawing called a cartoon. The cartoon served as a guide for the craftsmen who made the glass pieces. Morris was involved in the process, too. He selected the colors in the window and choose the glass. The size of windows varied, ranging from small panels to large wall-sized windows and tall, narrow forms.

The Charge to Solomon, a later stained glass window designed by Burne-Jones, 1882
Later stained glass window

Burne-Jones created stained glass window designs throughout his life. Some windows based on his images were even made after his death. The stained glass business allowed him to earn an income while he worked on his paintings.

Paintings of Edward Burne-Jones

In his paintings, Edward Burne-Jones developed a distinct style. His first works were watercolors, but he later switched to oil painting. His early work echoed the Pre-Raphaelites in linear quality and the use of color, but over the years, it became more personal. When you look at his paintings, it's hard to believe Burne-Jones was alive when the industrial revolution was underway in England because he focused on imaginary worlds and stories from medieval legends. One early example is The Merciful Knight, a watercolor done in 1863. In rich deep colors, it shows a dramatic moment where a wooden figure of Christ comes to life to embrace a knight. Based on a medieval legend, the scene is full of drama and mystery.

The Merciful Knight, painted in 1863
The Merciful Knight

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