Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse was born in 1849 in Rome to two British painters and attended the Royal Academy of Art in London. From birth, his life was dedicated to art, and he was immediately successful in his work, avoiding much of the strife that other less-established artists of the time suffered. In 1874, the successful showing of his painting Sleep and his Half Brother Death launched his career with the Royal Academy of Arts, where his work is displayed each summer until 1915. In 1885, a few years after marrying flower painter Esther Maria Kenworthy, Waterhouse began teaching at Academy Schools in addition to painting in his own studio at Primrose Hill Studios. Throughout his life, he taught at St. John’s Wood Art School, served on the Royal Academy Council, and was elected a full Academician in 1895 after the showing of St. Cecilia. Not much of his personality is known from his scarce correspondences, but highly positive reviews of his work show that his art was extremely popular with critics as well as the public. Waterhouse died in 1917 of cancer, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.
Waterhouse is known for his depictions of Greek mythology and illustrations of various literary works. He was heavily influenced by the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the mid-nineteenth century, a brotherhood of six English painters and poets who rejected the Classical, idealized style of Raphael in favor of more natural and realistic art. His early paintings focus on ancient Roman life and Roman mythology, perhaps because of his childhood in Italy, but through the years, he came to paint more literary characters. Some of his most famous paintings include The Lady of Shalott, Ophelia, and Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, all of which display recurring characters in literature. In fact, Waterhouse painted three depictions of the Lady of Shalott, and he was planning on completing a third painting of Ophelia before becoming ill with cancer in 1915.
Critics acclaim Waterhouse’s works from both the physical and the emotional perspective. Generally, his paintings involve one or several female figures in a vivid, almost otherworldly area, much of the time in claustrophobically natural settings. The heavy influence of the Pre-Raphaelite mentality is evident in Waterhouse’s purposeful placement of symbolically important details and composition, and his finished works were sometimes preceded by two or three other oil studies before the final painting. Frequently, Waterhouse would paint over an area with ten or more layers, a perfectionism that reveals the deep thought and creative idealism characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite painters. His craftsmanship aims for a realism that brings out the emotional impact and natural beauty of the female figure, and the settings in which the figures exist show a depth of feeling and imagination beyond the standard visual interpretation of mythology and literature.
I first saw Waterhouse’s works as illustrations to British literature that I studied from the Romantic period. Two poems in particular were my favorite: “The Lady of Shalott” (1833) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819) by John Keats. Because I loved those poems, it was wonderful to see that their illustrations were equally as complex and symbolic as the originals in a visual format. Upon further research into Waterhouse’s other paintings, I realized that I was familiar with much of the history and background of many of his works, especially those of Greek and Roman mythology. Waterhouse’s paintings soon became some of my favorite because I could interpret them in context of richly detailed stories and symbols that gave them meaning past physical appearance.
That being said, Waterhouse’s technical skill and craftsmanship are also incredibly beautiful, as well as a mix of realism and idealism that bring out the highest ideal in human form while still maintaining a believable, real-looking person. This combination of excellent painting and excellent thinking embody the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Waterhouse takes care to bring out the expression of his figures, particularly in women, and the theme of many of his paintings involve women as central figures of power, oftentimes as the “femme fatale” archetype (see La Belle Dame Sans Merci).

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (Study), oil on canvas
La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), oil on canvas
The painting above represents English Dark Romantic poet John Keats's 1819 ballad, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", which describes the regret of a knight who was lured into the power of the "faery's child", the "beautiful girl without mercy" who abandoned him after a brief affair. This poem demonstrates a power reversal: the traditional loss of innocence happens to the knight, bringing him from a position of high social status into a "palely loitering" regret.

I met a lady in the meads
    Full beautiful, a faery's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
    And her eyes were wild. 


 I saw pale kings, and princes too,
    Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
    Hath thee in thrall!" 

I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam
    With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
    On the cold hill side. 

And this is why I sojourn here
    Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
    And no birds sing. 

~ from "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", by John Keats (1819) 

The same meaning of the poem can be derived from Waterhouse's painting: the woman pulls the knight close to him by her hair, and his face is cast in shadow, representing the Everyman in the face of the overwhelming power of Nature and Beauty.

The Magic Circle (Study), oil on canvas
The Magic Circle (1886), oil on canvas
 The painting above depicts a woman performing an occult ritual. Waterhouse showed interest in magic and witchcraft, a common theme in Greek mythology and his paintings. I chose to include this painting because I loved reading about magic in mythology as a child, and this painting perfectly represents some of witchcraft's most common themes: the mixing of magical herbs, animal familiars, and a magic circle. Additionally, the craftsmanship of the painting is amazing: the way that Waterhouse renders the details of the woman and the background, along with the realism of the perspective and color scheme, evoke a chillingly believably image that reinforces all the traditional symbols of magic and mystery.

The Lady of Shalott (1888), oil on canvas

The painting above represents English Romantic poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson's ballad, "The Lady of Shalott", which describes the escape and death of the Lady of Shalott after seeing Sir Lancelot in a mirror. This poem was a groundbreaking representation of the feminist movement because the Lady of Shalott broke free of her chains and her curse to pursue and die for her own dreams.

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.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right —
The leaves upon her falling light —
Through the noises of the night
            She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
            The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
            Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
            The Lady of Shalott.

~ from "The Lady of Shalott", by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1833)

The paradoxical freedom and imprisonment of the Lady of Shalott is captured in Waterhouse's painting: as she looks forward into the future and takes off her chains, her face still holds fear, agony, and hope for breaking away from her past. She knows that resisting the rule of her male-dominated society will lead to her death, and yet she still "sings her last song" in the hopes of reaching the other shore. All of this background can be inferred just from the expression of the Lady of Shalott and the details in Waterhouse's painting.

Study for The Lady Clare (1900), pencil on paper

Most of Waterhouse's sketchbooks were filled with studies of female figures and faces in preparation for paintings that he was planning out. His compositional and background planning were primarily done in oil on canvas, sometimes going through two or three studies before finally painting the finished piece. The sketch shown above is a typical study of the female face. Waterhouse focuses intensely on facial expression, rendering the shadows of the face with extreme care and detail, and only loosely sketching the clothes and background.

Works Cited

Keats, John. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The Victorian Web. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci - Study". John William Waterhouse. Web. 25 Feb. 2012. <>.

Hobson, Anthony. J W Waterhouse. London: Phaidon Press, 1992. Print.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Peter Trippi, Robert Upstone, and Patty Wageman. J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphealite. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009. Print.

“Study for The Lady Clare”. John William Waterhouse. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. <>.

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Victorian Web. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.

No comments:

Post a Comment