The young Burne-Jones and his wife, Georgiana, spent the summer of 1860 with friends William and Jane Morris at their new home Red House, Upton in Kent. Burne-Jones collaborated frequently with Rossetti during this period; both artists had recently started painting with gouache and gum arabic on panel, a medium resembling oil. Sidonia von Bork is one of two panels of the same size and subject Burne-Jones executed in 1860, the other version is in the Tate Gallery, London. His father designed and made the frames for both pictures and they are rare examples of a frame workshop that briefly existed (Wildman, p. 66).
Johann Wilhelm Meingold published Sidonia von Bork: Die Klosterhexe in 1847 and Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde's mother, released the novel two years later in English as Sidonia the Sorceress. Sidonia was a legendary noblewoman from Pomerania who, in 1620, was accused of being a witch and burned at the stake. Living in the house of Pomerania, Sidonia wielded a great and vicious power over the family, for her beauty was so great that all who beheld her fell in love. Sidonia exercised this advantage cruelly; in league with her lover, she bewitched the entire ruling house, causing their death or sterility.
Meinhold, Rossetti, Wilde and Swinburne all shared the fashionable male obsession for stories of femme fatales and Sidonia was a particular favorite. Rossetti declared a "positive passion" for the novel; Swinburne named it a "real work of genius" (Wildman, p. 67). For the Victorian intellectual bourgeois, knowledge of esoteric literary fads, like the cult surrounding Sidonia, was a mark of stylish and urbane distinction.
Edith Wharton wrote the following letter to her friend Mary Berenson, wife of the famous art critic Bernard Berenson, who owned the picture at the time. The Berensons later sold the work to John Walker, Director of the National Gallery in Washington.
Dearest Mary: I wonder if you know the joy you left behind you here in entrusting me with that jewel of a picture? Many times I go to London one of my first pilgrimages is to the Tate Gallery, and my first homage there is paid to Sidonia! For years the little creature has haunted me like a passion and there is something almost uncanny in meeting her baleful gaze whenever I enter the library, and having the opportunity to caress at leisure the rich mysterious folds of her brocade. I simply don't know how to thank you for the privilege. ___ this box of "mints" is not intended as a "slight return" but are offered because I seem to remember that you liked them!
With love ___ Edith
You must let me know in due time how to send Sidonia back.
This letter will be sold on December 10, 2003 in Sotheby's sale of Fine Books and Manuscripts including Americana.