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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse

A Tour of John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. Waterhouse embraced the Pre-Raphaelite style even though it had gone out of fashion in the British art scene, by the time he painted this painting.

A Tour of John William Waterhouse Masterpieces

  • The Lady of Shalott
    • “The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse portrays the ending of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem of the same name. The scene shows the plight of a young woman from Arthurian legend, who yearned with unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot but was isolated under a curse in a tower near King Arthur’s Camelot. The Lady of Shalott was forbidden to look directly at the outside world. She was doomed to view the world through a mirror and weave what she saw into a tapestry. Her despair intensified when she saw loving couples in the far distance. One day she saw Sir Lancelot passing on his way in the reflection of her mirror, and she was overcome with desire and dared to look out at Camelot, bringing about the curse. The lady decided to face her destiny and escaped by boat, to sail to Camelot and her inevitable death. Museum: Tate Britain
  • Hylas and the Nymphs
    • “Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse portrays the abduction of Hylas by water nymphs. Hylas, according to classical mythology was as a youth who served as Heracles’ companion and servant. Hylas was kidnapped by nymphs of the spring, who had fallen in love with him, and he vanished without a trace. According to one ancient author, Heracles never found Hylas because he had fallen in love with the nymphs and remained “to share their power and their love.”  Museum: Manchester Art Gallery
  • Echo and Narcissus
    • “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse depicts Narcissus, a beautiful youth who rejected all the nymphs and women who fell in love with him and instead fell in love with his reflection. The story is based on a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin mythological epic. In the tale, the mountain nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus. Narcissus, however, rejects her love. The nymph Echo, who was so upset by his rejection that she withdrew from life and wasted away until all that was left was a whisper. Her prayers were heard by the goddess Nemesis, who caused Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection.  Museum: Walker Art Gallery
  • The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius
    • “The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius” by John William Waterhouse portrays Honorius feeding birds which are on the rug in front of him. The colours of the Emperor’s clothes and the carpet dominate the foreground is in contrast to the councillors seeking his attention, and who along with the attendants, are dressed in paler shades. However, the Emperor is also shown as indecisive, his face in shadow, is contrasted to Augustus’s statue in the background. Museum: Art Gallery of South Australia
  • Circe Invidiosa
    • “Circe Invidiosa” which in Latin means “Jealous Circe” by John William Waterhouse portrays Circe, poisoning the water to turn Scylla, her rival into “a hideous monster”. Circe is a goddess of magic, or sometimes an enchantress from Greek mythology and Scylla was a beautiful nymph who gets turned into the monster. In Latin, Invidia is the sense of envy, a “looking upon” associated with the evil eye. Invidia or envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins in Christian belief. Invidia is also the Roman name for the ancient Greek goddess, Nemesis. In this painting, Waterhouse has expertly invested his main subject with an aura of menace, with deep greens and blues and the echo of straight vertical lines emphasising the inevitability of her intent. Museum: Art Gallery of South Australia
  • Diogenes
    • “Diogenes” by John William Waterhouse depicts “Diogenes the Cynic” (412 – 323 BC) who was a Greek philosopher. Diogenes was a controversial figure with a reputation for sleeping and eating wherever he chose in a highly non-traditional fashion. Diogenes made a virtue of poverty. He begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar in the marketplace, as Waterhouse has depicted him in this 1882 painting. Waterhouse has contrasted the joyful and richly dressed women with the older man who was one of the founders of Cynic philosophy. In front of his ceramic jar lodgings is a lamp that he carried during the day, claiming to be looking for an honest man. He criticised Plato, disputed his interpretation of Socrates, and he was also noted for having mocked Alexander the Great, both in public and to his face when he visited Corinth in 336. Museum: Art Gallery of New South Wales
  • I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott
    • “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse is the third painting by Waterhouse that depicts a scene from the Tennyson 1832 poem, “The Lady of Shalott”. The scene shows the plight of a young woman from Arthurian legend, who yearned for the outside world but was isolated under a curse in a tower near King Arthur’s Camelot. The lady wears a red dress, in a small dark room with Romanesque column windows. The Lady of Shalott was forbidden to look directly at the outside world. She was doomed to view the world through a mirror and weave what she saw into a tapestry. In this painting, Waterhouse shows the large round mirror, through which the Lady views the world. He also captures her yearning look as she sees a couple in the bottom right of the mirror. Museum: Art Gallery of Ontario

John William Waterhouse

Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelites was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848. The group intended to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo, hence the name “Pre-Raphaelite”. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

The Pre-Raphaelites focused on painting subjects from modern life and literature often used historical costumes for accuracy. They painted directly from nature itself, as accurately as possible and with intense attention to detail. The Brotherhood’s new doctrines, as defined by William Michael Rossetti, were expressed in four declarations:

  • to have genuine ideas to express;
  • to study Nature attentively, to know how to express them;
  • to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and
  • the most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly enjoyable pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas. A later, medieval influence extended the movement’s power into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Artists

Reflections

  • Waterhouse had a passion for depicting the themes of love unrequited or frustrated by the fates.

A Tour of Artists and their Art

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“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
– Queen Victoria

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Photo Credit: H.S. Mendelssohn (Hayman Selig Mendelssohn) 1848–1908 [Public domain]

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