The painting is based on the Arthurian legend of the beguiling of Merlin by Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. But there’s another story behind the picture.
The model for Nimue was Maria Zambaco, herself an artist and sculptor, as well as a model for Whistler, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones. She was also Burne-Jones’ mistress. It was a tempestuous affair—Burne-Jones was married, and, at one point, Zambaco tried to get him to join her in a suicide pact. The police became involved, and there was a public scandal.
Burne-Jones continued to depict her in his paintings after the affair had ended, usually showing her as a temptress or enchantress. “The Beguiling of Merlin” was his last major work that included her.
In the picture, Merlin looks very much like the artist himself.
“The Beguiling of Merlin” is in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.