Wednesday, August 18, 2010

John William Waterhouse

I thought a nice way to round out the summer would be to feature a painter whose images always transport me to the lush foliage and divine fragrance of a summer stroll through a field of wild flowers.

My Sweet Rose

Gather Ye Rosebuds

*Sigh* Must summers always slip away so fast? Waterhouse's paintings are romantic and idyllic; their detail and form masterfully executed. Being the lover of fantasy I am you can imagine my delight as a child in visually devouring his depictions of rosy-lipped women draped in chiffon and crushed velvet gowns, gazing out at the window, or to some distant horizon in pensive contemplation.

Crystal Ball

The Tempest

Waterhouse's paintings are the stuff of legends--literally, he makes a point of portraying the greatest heroines and villains of Shakespeare, Greek and Arthurian mythology, forever frozen in their most poignant moments. Featured below, the despairing Ophelia (1910), just before stepping into the water to meet her tragic fate; Psyche (1905), upon entering Cupid's garden; and Apollo and Daphne (1908), their blighted chase of unrequited love ending in Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree.



Apollo and Daphne

Waterhouse was born in Rome, Italy, and it is believed for this reason many of his works are set in ancient Rome. At the age of 6 his family returned to England, and being the artistically inclined family they were, they encouraged young Waterhouse to draw and sketch what he saw in the local museums. At 22, Waterhouse entered the Royal Academy of Art to first study sculpture, but then switched to painting.

In 1874 his painting, Sleep and His Half Brother Death (seen above) was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition to great reviews, leading Waterhouse to exhibit at this annual show every year until 1916 (with the exception of 1890 and 1915). From then on his career was consistent and successful, leading him into teaching and the exhibition of his works for many years to come. At 34, he married fellow British artist, Esther Kenworthy, but never had any children. Isn't that often the case with artistic geniuses?

Gathering Almond Blossoms

The Flower Picker

Waterhouse is considered the very last of the Pre-Raphaelites, an artistic movement which began with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1849, the same year Waterhouse was born. Even though he was never an actual member of the brotherhood, Waterhouse adopted their signature style, rules of aesthetics, and rejection of conventional school of thought techniques.


A Mermaid

The term Pre-Raphaelites refers to the High Renaissance artist Raphael, whose work was often referred to by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as "rubbish", criticizing him for his decadent themes and depraved lifestyle. Although Raphael was one of the greatest painters in the history of art, he died of syphilis and was known as a drunkard. This did not sit well with the Brotherhood painters who believed that only a morally pure artist could produce morally pure art. Featured below, Raphael's La Fornarina, a portrait of his mistress, and below that, a portrait of himself after having painted his mistress. How scandalous!

Instead, members of the Brotherhood embraced the artistic manners of Medieval and Early Renaissance painters such as Lorenzetti, Veneziano, Verrocchio, and Bondone. They felt that these painters infused their works with spiritual symbolism, godliness and sacred themes. Featured below, Verrocchio's Madonna and Child, and Veneziano's Portrait of a Woman.

Oddly enough, the original Pre-Raphaelites were hardly saints themselves, having many trysts and mistresses, and often creating images that were considered too risque to be displayed in public. Oh well, I suppose an artist's ego has the power to make or break any rules they want, right? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also painted brightly-colored, evenly lit pictures that appeared almost flat, which was in direct opposition to the Royal Academy's emphasis on rich shadow and tone at the expense of color.

The Lady Of Shalott


In later years the Brotherhood reformed their precise, almost photographic realism by combining it with a magic or symbolic realism, often using devices found in the poetry of Tennyson, Browning, and Keats. The second stage of the movement also emphasized themes of eroticized medievalism, and techniques that produced a moody atmosphere.



Hylas and the Nymphs

I share Waterhouse's fondness for the female form, their lines so serpentine and graceful. His women are no waifs, however, having that sturdy, Rubenesque charm to them. Most often they are not the classic damsels in distress either, rather empowered females with a provocative sexuality to their gaze. During the Victorian age of propriety this must have been a challenge to many orthodox conventions, however, that is what the rebellious spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites was all about.



Circe Invidiosa (Jealous Circe)

One of Waterhouse's most well-known images--and one of my personal favorites, is the one pictured below, The Lady of Shalott (1888), based off of Lord Alfred Tennyson's heart-rending poem of the same name.

"And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance --
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott."

The Lady of Shalott was a poem of great inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites, more so almost than any other tale. One common portrayal was of the moment the Lady of Shalott, tired of seeing the world only through the reflection of her mirror and weaving it in her tapestry, decides to look out her window for real that she might gaze upon the face of Lancelot. The moment she does her mirror cracks and a curse falls upon her; she is doomed to a speedy demise!

The Lady of Shalott

An interesting analysis I read is that Tennyson wrote the poem as a commentary on the roles of Victorian women:

" is hard to read his images as anything but an oblique account of the confined and restricted world of the Victorian woman --accursed and prohibited by virtue of her sex alone--and the dire consequences attendant on rebellion. The rejection of seclusion in the shadowy sphere of prescribed femininity, where the approved activity is weaving or embroidery, leads immediately to ostracism and social death. The enclosed rooms in which these ladies live, looking out on inviting sunlit landscapes, and the tangled threads binding their vigorous limbs, are surely metaphors of woman's condition, signifying the docile, passive, reflective and domestic role that dominated Victorian ideas of femininity. The lady cannot break from her constraints: her gesture of independence provokes the curse. It is interesting that most artists chose to depict this particular moment, so that their ladies are frozen forever in their decision of defiance."

-Excerpt: Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women, 1987/1998, p. 152.

In conclusion I will leave you with some quotes from one of the great inspirations for the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Keats, which to me sums up the emotions stirred by Waterhouse's works:

"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'
-that is all ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know."

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
its loveliness increases;
it will never pass into nothingness."

"I am certain of nothing but
the holiness of the heart's affections,
and the truth of imagination."




  1. That was lovely to stumble upon, I am a great fan of Waterhouse and Tennyson! Thank you for posting this.

  2. A great admirer of the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, and of Waterhouse in particular, your post reminded me of the tragedy and melancholy portrayed in many Pre-Raphealite paintings.

    One of the images in your post I do not recognize... the last one. Who is the artist and what is the name of the painting?

  3. Jennifer, thank you for your comment!

    The Melancholy Romantic, the last image is of "The Lady of Shalott" by William Maw Egley, 1858. He wasn't a Pre-Raphaelite, as you can see by his style, however he enjoyed romanticizing his subjects. His work was never critically acclaimed, but he was a decent artist nonetheless. Thank you for you inquiry!