Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910

EDWARD BURNE-JONES 1833-1898

68 The Golden Stairs 1872-80

Oil on canvas 269.2 x 116.8 (106 x 46)
Inscribed 'EBJ 1880', b.l.
Prov: Cyril Flower, Lord Battersea; by whom bequeathed to the Tate Gallery 1907; presented by Lady Battersea 1924
Exh: Grosvenor Gallery 1880 (120); Manchester 1887 (206); New Gallery 1892 (51); New Gallery 1898 (108); White City 1908 (100); Sheffield 1971 (180); Hayward Gallery 1975 (138); Tate Gallery 1984 (154)
Lit: Bell 1892, pp.54, 59; de Lisle 1904, pp.122, 184; G.B.-J. 1904, I, p.297, II, pp.30, 68, 103; Battersea 1922, p.312; Bell 1927, repr. opp. p.106; Harrison and Waters 1973, fig.78; Hartnoll 1988, pp.32-3

Tate Gallery. Bequeathed by Lord Battersea 1924

The Golden Stairs, the composition of which was first devised in 1872 and worked on between 1876 and 1880, represents the consummation of Burne-Jones's interest in subjects that address the spectator in terms of mood rather than narrative, and is therefore in line of succession to works such as The Lament (no.25). The fact that various alternative titles for the present painting, including 'The King's Wedding' and 'Music on the Stairs', were contemplated demonstrates to what degree it fulfils a purely decorative purpose, and in this sense - in its abstract and formal character which depends not at all on the spectator's ability to comprehend or interpret - it is remarkably modern. This was occasionally recognised in the artist's lifetime, as for example on the occasion of the second Grosvenor Gallery exhibition when the Magazine of Art observed that 'these archaic affectations [Burne-Jones's paintings Chant d'Amour (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Laus Veneris (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)] are more modern, more entirely of the nineteenth century, than is a factory or a Positivist' (1878, p.81). In 1885, in a survey of Burne-Jones's art which dwelt on his debt to the Renaissance traditions, Claude Phillips concluded: 'The spirit which informs his art is essentially and entirely modern, and as far asunder as the poles from that which inspired his great prototypes' (Magazine of Art, 1885, p.228).

The Golden Stairs has a strange and compelling dynamic power. The girls seem to form an endless chain, wending their way down the spiral of the staircase which they descend, and the sense of continuum is mesmeric. As F.G. Stephens said of these figures who 'troop past like spirits in an enchanted dream, each moving gracefully, freely, and in unison with her neighbours': 'What is the place they have left, why they pass before us thus, wither they go, who they are, there is nothing to tell' (Athenaeum, 1880, p.605). The eighteen girls shown in the painting seem so alike (although it was said that each was drawn from a specific model), and the Fortuny-style dresses that they wear again form echoing patterns in the line of their pleats and folds. Burne-Jones, like Ruskin, was fascinated by patterns that flow in broad repetition but in which discrepancies and differences cause the eye to search for clues to the mentality of the artist in the way he has observed or invented the forms.

This fondness for the infinity of abstract variation allows Burne-Jones - a man who thought of himself as a reactionary in his love of line, and who despised what he saw as the Continental contamination of undisciplined Impressionism - to be regarded as an artist who was unconsciously engaging with issues that would, after his death, galvanise a new generation of progressive artists. We know that Burne-Jones's paintings were admired by Paul Gauguin in Paris in the early 1890s, and by the young Picasso in Barcelona at the turn of the century. Is it possible that Marcel Duchamp had been looking at a copy of Felix Jasinski's etching after The Golden Stairs (printed in Paris, published in 1894, and known to have circulated and been admired in France) when in 1912 he conceived his Cubist masterpiece Nude Descending a Staircase (fig.60 on p.272)?

Christopher Newall

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.189-90 no.68, reproduced in colour p.190