Created a baronet by William Gladstone, friend of Sarah Bernhardt, and idol of the Symbolists, by the time of his death in 1898 Sir Edward Burne-Jones was the most celebrated English artist in the world. To his admirers, his art represented the culmination of a literary tradition in painting that stretched back to the Renaissance. But to be a literary painter at the end of the nineteenth century was to be on the wrong side of history. Soon enough his reputation would begin its long descent into twentieth-century oblivion.
He sensed this, and was defiant. When a studio assistant told him that French Impressionism was not “based on literature,” he snapped, “What do they mean by that? Landscape and whores? That’s what they want—nothing but landscape or if any figure pictures more or less languid whores.” His own paintings, he added, were “so different to landscape paintings. I don’t want to copy objects; I want to tell people something.”