A smiling mermaid hauls the dead body of a naked young man to the bottom of the sea in this painting by British artist Edward Burne-Jones. With its warped forms, wavering lights and monochrome dimness, the painting is evocative of the strange seaways of underwater life. In fact, Burne-Jones was so determined to get these underwater effects right that he borrowed a large glass tank from another artist, Henry Holiday, filled it with tinted water, and used it as a prop to paint from in his studio. But this painting is more than just an eerie scene of mermaid mythology or a demonstration of the artist’s technical skill; it can also be seen as a psychological exploration of fear, desire, and fatal attraction.
This painting, in watercolour and gouache, is a copy of an oil painting (now in a private collection) which Burne-Jones exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1886—his first and last time to exhibit at the prestigious London venue. Burne-Jones usually exhibited his work at the Grosvenor Gallery, a younger and more radical exhibition space which was set up as to rival the conservative Royal Academy.
When first displayed, the painting left many perplexed. ‘It sets one beating one’s brains to find some hidden meaning,’ wrote one critic in The National Review. Even today it is easy to understand why. There is neither a clear-cut narrative to help us understand the painting, nor a straightforward indication of how we should feel towards the two figures. Did the young man submit to the mermaid willingly, or was he dragged to his death? What does she plan to do with his body? Does she know that she has caused his death, or is she yet to find out? Perhaps the most perplexing feature of this painting is the Mona Lisa smile on the mermaid’s face—how do we read it? We can only speculate—and this in fact was part of Burne-Jones’ intention. He described the painting as ‘indefinite’ and ‘suggestive.’ In this sense, it can be associated with the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century—an approach to art which favoured ambiguity, mood and suggestion over certainty or definite meanings.
The figures themselves are decidedly ambiguous. The mermaid is not only half-human, half-fish, but with her elfin features, thick torso, and defined muscles (with even a hint of a six-pack) she also appears half-male, half-female—an androgynous look which was common in the work of Burne-Jones. She clings like a limpet to her victim’s body. The deadly grip of her arm around his torso is reinforced by the serpent twist of her hair around his shoulder; and the two bodies are so tightly interlocked that they almost appear as one. Notice how the legs and feet of the drowned sailor are so firmly compressed that they begin to resemble the tail and flippers of the mermaid herself.
Mermaids and sirens
Mermaids haunted the 19th century imagination; the femmes fatales (seductive and dangerous women) of the deep, they sparked fear and fascination in equal measure. They are closely related to the figure of the Siren in classical mythology. Sirens were seductive but dangerous sea nymphs who would use their voices to lure sailors to their death. According to Burne-Jones’ wife, Georgiana, the artist associated the face of the mermaid in this painting with the high-class Victorian beauty Laura Lyttelton, also known as ‘the Siren’—her ability to charm and captivate those she met was legendary.
Mermaids can also be linked to concepts of womanhood and femininity. As many feminist writers have observed, women have often been linked symbolically to water. The goddess Venus for example, the ultimate symbol of feminine charm and sexuality, was born of the sea; and women, like water, are considered the source and sustenance of life. But there is also a dark side to this comparison: water is a dangerous element, which can contaminate or even kill. Mermaids and sirens were often used by 19th-century moralists to demonstrate the dangers of lustful living—those who allow themselves to be seduced by the charms of these creatures invariably meet a bad end.
Dangers of the deep
As many art historians have pointed out, many of Burne-Jones’ works, despite their dreamlike, otherworldly qualities, appear to hold deep psychological resonance. If so, what might this painting mean? A close reading of the image itself may give us some clues. The lack of space, and the way in which the figures are crammed into the foreground close to the picture plane suggests entrapment. There appears to be no way out—the background is closed off; the stone pillars crowd in either side; and the sand at the bottom of the sea appears to tilt up towards the picture plane, suggesting compression rather than depth. Even the stream of bubbles and the little shoal of fish at the top right of the painting appear to struggle to escape. The painting is also imbued with a sense of the unobtainable: the way that the two naked bodies are entwined is sexually suggestive, but sex itself is a physical impossibility. The mermaid may be physically incapable of human copulation; and the man lies limp and impotent in her arms.
The painting, perhaps, may be seen as a meditation on the trappings of lust, unattainable desire, and the hazards of straying out of your depth. Let us be warned.
Yea, draw him gently through the strange seaways
Down through the dim, green, water whispering.
Thy cold lips have not kissed so fair a thing
As this young mariner for many days.
So well he sleeps, he will not wake to praise
Thy wan bright loveliness, nor feel thee cling
Around him, neither smile to hear thee sing,
Though thou dids’t lure him hither with thy lays.
The bubbles sigh and sparkle overhead,
How white thou art! But he is paler still,
Pale with despair of young days forfeited.
Smiling thou bear’st him to thy chill green bed.
Of brightest, bitterest triumph take thy fill,
Thou hast his body, but the soul has fled.
—R. Armytage (Rosamund Marriott Watson), “The Depths of the Sea: after Burne Jones,” Academy (22 May 1886)
This painting at the Harvard Art Museums
Another mermaid by the artist with commentary (Christie’s)