Monday, July 28, 2008
The Wounded Cavalier
The Wounded Cavalier, by William Shakespeare Burton. Click here to view full-size image. Sorry this isn't a great reproduction, go to your library and borrow some books on the Pre-Raphaelites for a better picture! More on this later...
William Shakespeare Burton was born in London in 1824, the son of an (guess!) actor. He seems to have been a very sensitive, high-strung man, easily hurt by the criticism of others. So much so that he pretty much stopped painting in later life.
The Wounded Cavalier, painted in 1856, was by far his most popular painting, the masterpiece that made him his reputation as an artist. It caused a great stir when it was first exhibited because of its incredible attention to detail.
It truly is a most beautiful painting, one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. We see three figures in a clearing in a forest: a badly wounded soldier, a young Quaker girl tending him, and the girl's lover, holding a massive Bible and looking upon the pair with some measure of dubiousness (perhaps jealousy?) in his face.
Standing between us and this intriguing little threesome is a tree with a broken sword stuck fast in its trunk. This is presumably how the young cavalier got wounded - his weapon stuck in the tree and broke, hence he was unable to defend himself from his attacker. Delicately poised on the edge of the blade is a butterfly. Why did the artist put the butterfly there? What is it supposed to signify? Maybe we will never know for certain.
The historical setting for this painting is supposed to be around 1650, the time of the British Civil War, but it holds a sort of timeless appeal. It is a scene that belongs not in any specific time period, but rather in an ageless world of fairy tales and myths. This is one reasons why PRB paintings are still so appealing to us today: they may at first seem to be old-fashioned, but eventually they draw us into their magical, Arthurian world. Through them we can escape to a place where there is chivalry, romance, and beauty in abundance - three things sorely missing in modern society. The Pre-Raphaelites felt that the Victorian world in which they lived was almost totally devoid of these qualities, yet how much worse is the situation today in the 21st century!
Although this is the only Pre-Raphaelite painting Burton ever produced, it manages to bring together everything the PRB stood for. It is, as I said earlier, one of my favourite paintings to have sprung from the Pre-Raphaelite movement.