Baronne Madeleine Deslandes (1866–1929) was an accomplished novelist who moved in literary and artistic circles in Paris. Numerous members of the Symbolist movement respected her writing, many of whom also admired Edward Burne-Jones. She was hostess of a busy salon that attracted artists, poets and composers, including Tissot, Edmond de Goncourt, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Barrès and Oscar Wilde.
On 7 May 1893 the Baronne Deslandes published in Le Figaro (under her literary pseudonym Ossit) the first article to be entirely devoted to Burne-Jones in a French newspaper. In order to prepare this article, she travelled to England in March 1893 to interview the artist. She wrote back to Maurice Barrès that Burne-Jones had been ‘thunderstruck’ by meeting her, and that his enthusiasm was such that that ‘he wants to do a portrait of me — which apparently is something I should be very proud of, as he has an absolute horror of making portraits’ (Fonds Barrès, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). Despite this claim, Burne-Jones scholars are agreed that the Baronne herself probably lobbied the artist to undertake her portrait.
The Portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandes, 1895–96, makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the creative dialogue that developed between Burne-Jones and French and Belgian Symbolist milieus in the last decade of the artist’s life when he exhibited at the Universal Exhibitions of 1878 and 1879 in Paris. Gustave Moreau made contact with Burne-Jones, as did Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who wrote to the English artist in 1891, asking him to send his famous Wheel of fortune (a version of which is held in the NGV’s collections) to the exhibition of the Société nationale des beaux-arts. The Portrait of Baronne Madeleine Deslandes was the last painting Burne-Jones exhibited in Paris in his lifetime, and his only contribution to the 1896 Salon du Champ-de-Mars. In this sublime portrait Burne-Jones has painted the Baronne Madeleine Deslandes in a blue dress, recalling the similarly clad figures in her favourite paintings from the artist’s celebrated Briar rose series. The Baronne perceived herself as something of a visionary and Burne-Jones has made reference to this self-awareness by placing a laurel tree (a traditional emblem of prophecy) behind her and a crystal ball on her lap. This may also account for the formal qualities of this work — the rather rigid pose of the sitter and her very serious, inwardly reflective and sensitive facial expression.
A portrait of this calibre adds a highly significant new dimension to the Pre-Raphaelite collection, as well as deepening the Gallery’s holdings by Burne-Jones, which include eleven drawings and two major subject paintings, The garden of Pan and The wheel of fortune.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator of International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).