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Study for the Head of Fortune for "The Wheel of Fortune"

Edward Burne-Jones
Study for the Head of Fortune for "The Wheel of Fortune", c. 1877-1883
Oil on canvas
37.3 x 39.6 cm
Gift of Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan, 2001, in memory of Dr. William E. Fredeman

The early years of Burne-Jones were marked by his association with William Morris and the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The artist began to attract a following in the late 1860s, but from 1870, when nudity in one of his paintings caused its removal from an exhibition, he withdrew from the public eye. In 1877, however, he exhibited a series of paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery to unprecedented acclaim. Renown, accepted with reluctance, led in 1886 to his election to the Royal Academy, from which he resigned in 1893. By then he was already the leader of the Aesthetic Movement and his style had become the hallmark of international Symbolism.

In 1870 Burne-Jones conceived a project on the Fall of Troy that included allegories of Fortune, Fame, Oblivion, and Love. He eventually abandoned the idea, but would develop the subjects into independent compositions. Of these, The Wheel of Fortune became his own favourite as well as the most popular of his masterpieces. The elaboration of the painting proved very long, the artist beginning in earnest only in 1871 when, during a visit to Italy, he spent several days studying Michaelangelo's Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. In 1872 he embarked on a large work that he cast aside in 1875 in favour of an even larger canvas. It is this second painting, finished first and now in the Musée d'Orsay, that he exhibited in 1883 as the prime version of The Wheel of Fortune.

A vast number of studies for the painting exist, many devoted to the element that absorbed the artist most: the head of Fortune. Indeed, drawings dated from 1872 through 1877 show a constant preoccupation with an ideal type, partly inspired by Michaelangelo's Erythraean Sybil. The general concept for the figure's head - shown in profile, her eyes lowered, oblivious to the fate of her victims - remained relatively unchanged over the years. Yet the form of the profile varied widely, perhaps with each new model, and the headdress underwent several modifications. The artist's protracted search for the perfect head concluded with three monochrome oil studies that enabled him to focus on form. Of these, the head now in Ottawa is the final study and on the same scale as the Orsay painting. The date of the studies remains elusive, but they were surely painted between 1877, when Burne-Jones still worked on drawings, and early 1883, when the painting was completed.

Over the years Burne-Jones used different models, but in the final instance Lily Langtry, the famous Victorian actress, claimed that distinction. She certainly sat to Burne-Jones several times from early 1879, when he described to a friend the effect she had on him: "It was the first time I had ever seen the Beauty - and I didn't like to stare too much . . . I can't imagine a face more radiant or a look more serene - like day itself she is."