Traces of the Hand



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Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman

Drawing Media

Edward Burne-Jones
English, 1833–1898
Study of an Actor, c. 1856–1858
Pencil on wove paper
11 1/16 x 7 3/4 in, 28.1 x 19.69 cm (sheet)
Signature: (recto) lower left: "EB-J"
Watermark: JWHATE (fragment of JWHATELY)
Provenance: Acquired from Contemporaries-New York, 1966
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2006.11.9

Born in Birmingham, England, Edward Burne-Jones showed a proclivity for the arts from a very young age. Quickly abandoning his original dream of becoming a priest, he joined the emerging Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood soon after beginning school at Oxford’s Exeter College in 1853.1 Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelites rebelled against an industrialized England and aspired to the beauty and piety of the medieval world.2 The medievalizing attire of the figure in this Herman Collection drawing, Study of an Actor, is in keeping with these ideals; and the figure’s missing arms are typical of his costume studies.3 Burne-Jones especially admired the work of Pre-Raphaelite leader Dante Gabriel Rossetti and joined his studio in 1856. The two remained personally and professionally close years after Burne-Jones left the studio in 1858.4 Rossetti’s influence on this drawing is evident in the exaggerated elongation of the figure’s body, as well as his slender, delicate grace.

Burne-Jones placed great importance on "exercises in draftsmanship" and thoroughly studied in drawing every detail of his larger paintings before painting a stroke. While this particular drawing has not been directly linked to a specific painting, strikingly similar figures appear in other works by Burne-Jones, like the second painting from his series on Pygmalion and the Image from 1869.6 Nonetheless, considering Burne-Jones’ dedication to drawing, he may not necessarily have created this drawing in preparation for a specific painting. Most of Burne-Jones’ numerous drawings are unsigned, so his initials in the lower left corner indicate that the work held some, as yet unknown, importance to Burne-Jones in his artistic career.7

Dating Burne-Jones’ numerous drawings is a challenge, as he did not date them himself, and style changes in his art are not easily discernible across his career. One persuasive argument draws similarities between the male model in this work and one commonly used by Rossetti from about 1847–1857.8 A number of works depict men with the same tousled curly hair, angular chin, and prominent cheekbones; they also appear to be around the same age. This seems to indicate that Burne-Jones created the drawing during his time at Rossetti’s studio.

Rachel Van Dolsen
Katelyn Crawford
Siobhan Donnelly


1. Stephen Wildman and John Christian, Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, 44,

2. Raymond Watkinson, Pre-Raphaelite Art and Design, New York, 1970, 16.

3. May Johnson, Burne-Jones: All Colour Paperback, New York, 1979, 31.

4. John Christian, "The Compulsive Draughtsman," Hidden Burne-Jones: Works on Paper by Edward Burne-Jones from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, London, 2007, 7–27.

5. Wildman and Christian, Edward Burne-Jones, 73.

6. Johnson, Burne-Jones, 4.

7. Patrick Bade, Edward Burne-Jones, New York, 2004, 15.

8. Michele Julian, in Miles Chappell, Form, Function, and Finesse: Drawings from the Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, Catalogue of the Exhibition and Handlist of the Collection, Williamsburg, Virginia: Joseph and Margaret Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William & Mary, 1983, 106


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