PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Souls on the Banks of the River Styx (England, 1876)

Not for Sale Not for Sale
Oil on canvas


89.00cm high
71.00cm wide
(35.04 inches high)
(27.95 inches wide)
114.40cm framed height
95.80cm framed width
55.00cm framed depth
(45.04 inches framed height)
(37.72 inches framed width)
(21.65 inches framed depth)
Request information about this work of art
View all images on one page


The Artist's studio
Sir Philip Burne-Jones Bt., the artist's son
Christie's London, Sale of the remaining works by the late Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt., June 5th 1919, lot 172
Lady Ford; sold at:
Christies London, July 16th 1965, lot 57; sold to:
Christopher Lennox Boyd; to 1983 sold to Peter Nahum
Peter and Renate Nahum, London


Untouched in the original Watts pattern frame


Sir Philip Burne-Jones Bt., Notes on Some Unfinished Works of Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt., by his Son, Magazine of Art 23 (1900/01), pages 159-67. Illustrated is a view of the studio, View of Burne-Jones's studio in West Kensington in 1901, showing the Car of Love, with many paintings hanging including, in the background on the upper row on the right, Souls by the River Styx.
Hilary Morgan, Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelites and their Century, Peter Nahum, London 1989, volume I pages 72-4, volume II illustrated plate 39
Bill Waters, Burne-Jones - A Quest for Love, Peter Nahum, London 1993, pages 13, 14, 46 & 47, illustrated page 14
Jean Clair, Lost Paradise - Symbolist Europe, Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1995, illustrated page 178, plate 224, number 35
Musée Municipal des Beaux-Arts de Takamatsu, Symbolisme en Europe, Takamatsu, 1996, illustrated page 82, number 45
Andrew Wilton, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts. Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997, illustrated page 147, number 39
Thomas Zaunschirm, Landesmuseum Joanneum, The Colours Black, Graz, 1999, illustrated page 180
Alain Brossart, L'épreuve du désastre. Le xxieme siecle et les camps, Bibliotheque Albin Michel Idées, Paris 1996, illustrated on the cover
William Waters and Peter Nahum, Edward Burne-Jones, His Medieval Sources and Their Relevance to His Personal Journey in Edward Burne-Jones The Earthly Paradise, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, October 2009, pages 183-4, catalogue no. 143, illustrated page 184
Alison Smith, Edward Burne-Jones, Tate catalogue October 2018, cat no. 48, illustrated page 91

Exhibition History

London, The Garden Studio, The Grange (the Burne-Jones family's house in Fulham), 1901
London, Peter Nahum, Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelites and their Century, 1989, number 55
London, Peter Nahum, Burne-Jones, A Quest for Love, 1993, number 7
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lost Paradise - Symbolist Europe, 1995, number 35
Takamatsu, Musée Municipal des Beaux-Arts de Takamatsu, Symbolisme en Europe, November 1996-December 1996, number 45; Tokyo, Musée des Beaux-Arts Bunkamura, December-February, 1997, number 45; Himeji, Musée Municipal d'Art de Himeji, February-March 1997, number 45
New Haven, Yale Center of British Art, April-October 1997 (on loan)
London, The Tate Gallery, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts – Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, 1997-8, number 39; travelling to:
Munich, Haus der Kunst, 1998, number 39; Hamburg, Kunsthalle, 1998, number 39
Graz, Austria, Landesmuseum Joanneum, Die Farben Schwarz - The Colours Black, May-October 1999
Minneapolis, Minneapolis Museum of Art, 1999-2000 (on loan)
Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie, Edward Burne-Jones - The Earthly Paradise, October 2009 - February 2010
Berne, Kunstmuseum Berne, Edward Burne-Jones - The Earthly Paradise, March 2010 - July 2010
Tokyo, Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Burne-Jones in Japan, June-August 2012 and travelling to:
Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Art, Kobe, September - October 2012
Koriyama City Museum of Art, Koriyama, October - December 2012
London, Tate Britain, Edward Burne-Jones, 24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019
Stockholm, Waldemarsudde, Edward Burne- Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and the North August 2019 - February 2020
Oslo, Edward Burne- Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and the North February 2020 - May 2020

Description / Expertise

Souls on the Banks of the River Styx is inspired by a passage in Virgil’s Aeneid, describing souls awaiting their passage to the underworld. In accord with their new interest in classicism, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones shared an interest in this book in the first half of the 1870s. It culminated in Morris’s illuminated manuscript of the Latin text with miniatures designed by Burne-Jones (1874-1875) and Morris’s translation of the text into English verse (1875). The manuscript, which was completed under the auspices of Charles Fairfax Murray, Burne-Jones’s studio assistant, is now at St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California. Burne-Jones’s pencil drawings for the illustrations are in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. For further references to the project, see: Maria Teresa Benedetti, Burne-Jones, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome 1986, pages 272-3.

The stanzas that Burne-Jones has illustrated in this painting run as follows in Morris’s translation:

All dim amid the lonely night on through the dust they went,

On through the empty house of Dis, the land of nought at all.
E'en as beneath the doubtful moon, when niggard light doth fall,
Upon some way amid the woods, when God hath hidden heaven,
And black night from the things of earth the colours clear hath given.

Down thither rushed a mighty crowd, unto the flood-side borne;
Mothers and men, and bodies there with all the life outworn.
Of great souled heroes; many a boy and never wedded maid,
And youths before their fathers eyes upon the death-bale laid:

There stood the first and prayed him hard to waft their bodies o'er,
With hands stretched out for utter love of that far-lying shore.
But that grim sailor now takes these, now those from out the band,
While all the others far away he thrusteth from the sand.

Alternatively, the image is close to Dante's Inferno canto III, bearing in mind Burne-Jones's and Maria's recent attempted suicide:

Ed io: Maestro, che è tanto greve
A lor, che lamentar gli fa sì forte?
Rispose: Dicerolti molto breve.

Questi non hanno speranza di morte,
e la loro cieca vita è tanto bassa,
che 'nvidïosi son d'ogni altra sorte.

Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa.

"O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore?"
He answered: "I will tell thee very briefly.
These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.
No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass."

In Greek mythology the River Styx (named after the goddess daughter of Oceanus and Thetis who ruled over the River) ran through Arcadia from a snow-fed spring on Mount Chelmus and descended a wild gorge into the Underworld. It then divided and wound nine times around the kingdom of Hades, where the souls of the dead dwelt for eternity. Hades is referred to in Morris’s translation by its Latin euphemism of Dis. To enter the kingdom the souls of the dead, escorted by Hermes, paid a fare and were then ferried across the River Styx by the ancient boatman Charon; they were prevented from ever returning by the monstrous watchdog Cerberus. Once the souls had reached the far shore the eternal judges Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus confronted them.

The Greeks and Romans thought of the kingdom of Hades as a grim and almost inescapable place, but it was not particularly associated with punishment or retribution. In one group of myths, individuals of great virtue and merit were admitted to Elysium rather than the kingdom of Hades; this may be the preferential selection referred to in the third stanza quoted, but generally all were reconciled to the prospect of a cheerless eternity as the subjects of the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

A number of preliminary drawings exist for the figure groups in Souls on the Banks of the River Styx but there are no other painted versions of the subject. The Virgilian theme and the style of drawings and painting date the work to the early 1870s. In this period, Burne-Jones experimented with textual effects in his paintings, as did his friend George Frederick Watts. Later Burne-Jones abandoned these techniques in favour of a higher degree of finish, but in this work the melancholy of the wraith-figures is emphasised by the use of thinly applied, dry paint. Nowhere else in the artist's oeuvre has he achieved such an elemental quality with such economy of means.

The potency of the image, anticipating the Symbolists by twenty years, owes something to events in Burne-Jones’s personal life. In the early years of the 1870’s Burne-Jones was involved in a love affair with Mary Zambaco, a passionate and determined woman who was a member of the Greek community in London and later a sculptress of some note. By the time that he came to paint Souls on the Banks of the River Styx he had decided that he should disentangle himself from her, but had found that to do so was more difficult and distressing than he expected. He was profoundly shaken by these events and his depression to some extent found release in the present painting.

Doré's illustrated edition of Dante's Divine comedy, published in 1867 was most probably the inspiration for Souls on the Banks of the River Styx. Like Doré, the painting is unusually dark and the wretched figures have much in common. As Burne Jones at this date was interested in creating complex subjects divided into sections, as demonstrated by the Troy polyptych (Birmingham Art Gallery), it is probable that the present painting is part of a dyptych, the missing section containing Charon's Boat. Doré's illustration The Embarkation of the souls is taken from The Inferno, part 3, lines 109-111.

The off-centre composition, where the figures are deliberately cut-off on the right, reflects those of Veronese. In several of his compositions he cuts through the right-hand figure groups and on the left-hand side opens the composition to the landscape beyond. In addition to the right-hand figure group, the crouching figure in the centre is portrayed beyond, which may also have been influenced by the Veronese composition. The most obviously influential of Veronese's works is The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, which was gifted to the National Gallery London in 1875 and on show there from 1876. Burne-Jones copied details from Veronese on his 1862 trip to Venice; The Triumph in the Ducal Palace,the Marriage at Cana and probably from his Marriage of St Catherine (Church of St. Cattarina). Burne-Jones was almost certainly highly influenced by the gift to the National Gallery in London of The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, which was placed on display in 1876.