black and white chalk over pencil
19 x 12.5"
This is a preparatory study for the figure of Perseus on the right side of the composition The Call of Perseus. This was the first subject in the cycle which was to form the Perseus series, commissioned by Arthur James Balfour in 1875 to decorate the music-room of his London house, 4 Carlton Gardens. The original scheme, with its division into painted and sculpted gesso panels and its decorative surrounds to be designed by William Morris, can be seen in three of designs from 1875-6, now in the Tate Gallery (exhibited The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts – Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, Tate Gallery, London, 1997-8, nos. 93-6). Eventually the sculpted panels were abandoned and oil compositions introduced to replace them. Parts of the series were left unfinished at Burne-Jones's death. The cycle of oil paintings is now in the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, while the preparatory gouache cartoons are in Southampton Art Gallery.
William Morris had treated the Perseus legend as 'The Doom of King Acrisius' in The Earthly Paradise, and Burne-Jones chose to follow the story as given there. Perseus was commanded to fetch the Medusa's Head, the magic power of which caused all who saw it to be turned to stone. Armed with magic weapons by the goddess Athena, and with winged sandals, a pouch into which to put the head, and the means of becoming invisible, he then visited the Graiae – sisters of the Gorgon who inhabited a land of darkness near the ends of the earth – from whom he was to gain information about the whereabouts of the sea-nymphs, from whom he gained further magic armours, and was thus prepared to find and kill the Medusa, and to cut off its head with impunity. On his way back Perseus came across Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, King of Joppa in Ethiopia, chained to a rock as sacrifice to appease the gods who were displeased following insulting remarks made by Andromeda's mother Queen Cassiopeia.
The first composition, for which the present drawing was made, shows Perseus twice – sitting on a river bank dejectedly contemplating the impossibility of the task that he had been set. At the centre of the composition is the statuesque figure of the goddess Athena, who hands to the second figure of Perseus a magic mirror and a sword. The gouache version of the subject was painted in 1877, during the periods when Burne-Jones worked on the cycle in earnest. The present drawing, which is a beautiful example of the artist's mature draughtsmanship after the period of intensive self-training that he subjected himself to in the 1860s on the basis of study both of antique sculpture and the work of Michelangelo, must have been made at about the same time.