King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

Edward Coley Burne-Jones • Painting, 1884, 293.4×135.9 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Literary scene
Style of art: The Pre-Raphaelites
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1884
Size: 293.4×135.9 cm
Artwork in selections: 13 selections

Description of the artwork «King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid»

The “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” painting is an illustration of the legend about an African ruler who suddenly fell in love, although he was previously famous for his lack of interest in women. The object of his passion was a beautiful beggar maid, whom he eventually married and made his queen. This is a story about the power of love and its ability to overcome obstacles such as social origins.

Burne-Jones was inspired by the old tale titled “A Song of a Beggar and a King” of 1612, which was published in 1842, as well as a poem by Alfred Tennyson, which appeared the same year. Tennyson, who was promoted to the peerage in 1884, was extremely popular with the Victorians, including Queen Victoria herself. Many of his poems became a source of inspiration for artists of that time.

Like many Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones chose a long and narrow canvas in upright format. A beautiful beggar maid sits higher than the king — a very clear hint of the upcoming rise in her status. The girl’s pale skin contrasts with the darker tones of the rest of the picture, focusing the viewer’s attention on the thin, ethereal figure so typical of Burne-Jones’s heroines.

Scientists note the similarities between the beggar maid and the artist’s wife Georgiana, who married him in 1860. She was one of four famous Macdonald sisters (three other sisters also married prominent men of the time), and later became her husband’s biographer. However, their marriage was not always cloudless. The painter’s romance with his model Maria Zambako caused a scandal when she had lost her mind at the end of their relationship and publicly threatened to commit suicide.

It is interesting that one flower in the “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” painting is an anemone, which was considered a symbol of rejected love in Victorian England. This feeling does not correspond to the legend, but, perhaps, was significant for the artist himself. Scientists also point out that the theme of love that overcomes class and financial prejudices is in line with the ideas expressed by William Morris, a staunch socialist and one of Burne-Jones’s closest friends.

Metal artist William Benson posed as King Cophetua. According to the biographers of Burne-Jones, he made the crown, which his hero held in his hand, since the artist strove for an accurate reproduction of all objects and painted them from life. An interesting solution was found for the beggar’s attire. The poem says that she appeared before the king in a “grey and virtuous” dress, which Burne-Jones considered, in his own words, “unappetizing”. And yet he did not change the image described by the poet, but dressed his heroine in an almost transparent dark grey tunic.

Burne-Jones began painting his “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” in 1861—1862. After 12 years, he developed a new composition, and returned to the original canvas in 1881. In April 1884, the artist announced the completion of the work. Alongwith literary works, he was influenced by the painting “Madonna della Vittoria (Madonna of Victory)”, painted by Andrea Mantegna in 1496 and now kept in the Louvre.
Several sketches for the Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece have survived to this day. A small work in gouache, now owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, depicts the main subjects sitting much closer to each other. And on full-size cardboard, done in gouache and crayons (a collection of an art gallery in Birmingham), you can see a different approach to lighting the figures.

In the spring of 1884, the “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and public took it very well. The sentimentality of the theme and the happy end of the story undoubtedly gave a refresh to the 19th century audience, which was accustomed mainly to narratives with sad ends. The Art Journal declared the work the Painting of the Year, and The Times went further and called it “not only the finest work that Mr. Burne-Jones ever painted, but one of the best pictures ever painted by an Englishman”. Five years later, the masterpiece was presented at the World Exhibition in Paris, and its author received the Order of the Legion of Honour. The artist’s wife Georgiana claimed that “there are more personal features of Edward in this picture than in any other picture he created”.

Author: Vlad Maslov