This painting was conceived at a time when Burne-Jones was deeply influenced by his travels in Italy. Returning home to London in 1872, he was inspired to set out a program of ambitious new works. Writing in 1904, his widow, Georgiana Burne-Jones, described how the painting had its origins in one such scheme: ‘[it] is a fulfilment of part of Edward's intention to paint the Beginning of the World. He first called it "The Youth of Pan" ' (G. Bume-Jones, Memorials of Edward, Burne-Jones (1904), vol. II, London, 1993, p. 174).
The artist’s original idea was more complex and grand in scale than this painting would suggest. He initially planned to include 'the beginning of the world, with Pan and Echo and sylvan gods, and a forest full of centaurs, and a wild background of woods, mountains, and rivers'. (G. Bume-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones (1904), vol. I, London, 1993, p. 308). In the finished work there are just three figures in a twilight setting. The image is coloured by the artist's love of the Italian Renaissance. Although Burne-Jones did not travel to Italy after 1872, he saw numerous Renaissance pictures in public and private collections in Britain.
Burne-Jones's interest in the Renaissance was not only visual, however, for he was also a scholar of literature and mythography. During the 1860s and 1870s both he and Morris became interested in the transformation of stories that had filtered down from Persian and Greek sources to reappear in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The deity Pan was the type of migratory figure that appealed to these artists. Pan had appeared in various forms throughout the centuries, ranging from 'the good shepherd' to demonic goat-legged creatures.
In this image, Pan is a beautiful, slender youth; as he plays, the kingfisher and dragonflies — creatures known for their darting speed — stop to listen to the sweet sound. Another characteristic of Burne-Jones's work is his inclusion of elements such as doorways, rock portals or water, which act as boundaries between different states of being. In this painting a bend in the river divides the young god from his listeners, separating the natural and supernatural worlds.
Text by Jennifer Long from European Masterpieces: six centuries of paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2000, p. 168.