Sir Edward Burne-Jones
British, 1833 - 1898
The Beguiling of Merlin
Nimuë (or Vivien) was an
enchantress who traded her love for lessons in sorcery
from Merlin, but finally turned on him, using one of his
own spells to ensnare him in a hawthorn bush and
transport him to a tower as an eternal prisoner.
Tennyson's Idylls of the Kings tell how she
enhanted Merlin into disclosing the spell by which men
could be enthralled:
A storm was coming, but the winds
And in the wild woods of Broceliande
Before an oak, so hollow, huge and old...
At Merlin's feet the wily Vivien lay
Writhed towards him, slided up his knee and sat,
Behind his ankle twined her hollow feet
Together, curved an arm about his neck,
Clung like a snake.
Nimüe, with her sinuous body and
snake-entwined hair, shown consulting her book of spells,
was one of Burne-Jones' plentiful images of a femme
fatale, a woman depicted as a seductress with a man as
her helpless victim.
Burne-Jones poured so much
emotional energy into the work that after completing it
he collapsed and was bed-ridden for many weeks. 'The
Beguiling of Merlin' was one of Oscar Wilde's favourite
paintings, he called it 'brilliantly suggestive'. The painting was shown at the 1878 Paris Exposition, making it the first of Burne-Jones' works to be shown abroad.
The model for Nimüe was Maria Zambaco; the model for Merlin was the American journalist William J. Stillman, the husband of Marie Spartali Stillman.
Burne-Jones later wrote to Helen Mary Gaskell:
'The head of Nimüe in the picture called The Enchanting of Merlin was painted from the same poor traitor, and was very like - all the action is like - the name of her was Mary. Now isn't that very funny as she was born at the foot of Olympus and looked and was primaeval and that's the head and the way of standing and turning… and I was being turned into a hawthorn bush in the forest of Broceliande - every year when the hawthorn buds it is the soul of Merlin trying to live again in the world and speak - for he left so much unsaid.'
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