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“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt

"The Lady of Shalott" by William Holman Hunt

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt depicts a scene from Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” Hunt shows the moment immediately after the Lady has looked directly out of her window at Sir Launcelot as her fate beings to unwind.

In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott is confined to a tower on an island near Camelot, cursed not to leave the tower or look out of its windows.

She suffers from a mysterious curse and must continually weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror, reflecting the people of Camelot who pass by her island.

“She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.”

She weaves a tapestry, viewing the outside world only through reflections in a mirror behind her. The painting depicts the scene in which the Lady sees Sir Launcelot in her mirror.

The sight of the handsome knight and the sound of him singing draws her away from her loom to the window, yarn still clinging around her knees, bringing down the curse upon her.

“All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.”

The Lady of Shalott is shown standing within her circular loom, with an unfinished tapestry. However, the weaving is trapping her in its threads.

She is wearing a brightly colored bodice over a cream chemise, with a pink skirt. Her feet are bare, with her slip-on pattens nearby, and her long hair has whipped up wildly above her head.

Behind her is the large round mirror that she had used to observe the world outside her tower, but it has cracked. The reflection shows Launcelot riding past and the pillars of the Lady’s window.

“Out flew the web and floated wide—
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.”

The irises littering the floor indicate that her purity is stained. Disturbed from their perch, a pair of doves fly past silver candlestick, while another pair escapes through an upper window. 

To her left is an oval roundel of the adoration of the Christ Child by Mary, representing humility. The roundel on her right shows a haloed Hercules representing valor during his labor to take apples from the Hesperides’ garden. 

Above the roundels is a frieze of a stylized sky, containing cherubs and haloed female figures guiding planets and a sphere of stars. One of the angelic beings stomps on a serpent. The frieze symbolizes harmony and patience. 

After the scene in the painting, she leaves her tower, finds a boat, and floats down the river to Camelot. She dies before arriving at the palace. Among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot, who thinks she is lovely.

“Who is this? And what is here?”
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

Hunt’s creative effort took many years before he finishes this painting and the work underwent multiple transformations before this painting was finalized.

The painting is based on Hunt’s 1857 drawing engraved on wood by John Thompson and printed in the lavishly illustrated 10th edition of Tennyson’s Poems, published in 1857.

Hunt’s drawing and painting were based on earlier sketches from the early 1850s inspired by Jan van Eyck’s marriage portrait, The Arnolfini Portrait.

Then came a small panel painting now at the Manchester Art Gallery. His grand final version was completed between 1902 and 1905.

The Lady of Shalott

  • Title:                  The Lady of Shalott
  • Artist:                William Holman Hunt
  • Date:                 1888-1905
  • Medium:           Oil on canvas
  • Style:                 Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:      188.3 cm × 146.4 cm (74.1 in × 57.6 in)
  • Museum:          Wadsworth Atheneum

The Lady of Shalott

“The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Tennyson is based on the medieval story that tells the tragic story of a young noblewoman imprisoned in a tower up the river from Camelot.

Tennyson wrote two versions of the poem, one published in 1833, the other in 1842. The revised version has a significantly different ending designed to match Victorian morals regarding the act of suicide.

It is one of the poet’s best-known works, its medieval romanticism and enigmatic symbolism inspired many painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Pre-Raphaelites admired Tennyson’s work, and he was among the list of ‘Immortals’ that the young members of the Brotherhood had drawn up in 1848.

William Holman Hunt created two versions of this painting. The Wadsworth Atheneum holds the larger version in Hartford, Connecticut. The Manchester Art Gallery holds a smaller version.

A wood engraving by John Thompson was published in 1857, based on Hunt’s drawing.

"The Lady of Shalott" by William Holman Hunt

A wood engraving by John Thompson  based on Hunt’s drawing, 1857

Manchester Art Gallery Version

A much smaller version at the Manchester Art Gallery was a preparatory study for the larger picture, and it features several differences.

The roundels show the Agony in the Garden and on the left and Christ in Majesty on the right. The frieze consists of a row of standing cherubs.

The Lady of Shalott

  • Title:                  The Lady of Shalott
  • Artist:                William Holman Hunt
  • Date:                 1886–1905
  • Medium:           Oil on panel
  • Style:                 Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:      188.3 cm × 146.4 cm (74.1 in × 57.6 in)
  • Museum:          Manchester Art Gallery

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910) was an English painter and one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founders. His paintings were notable for their incredible attention to detail, vivid color, and symbolism.

These features were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, according to whom the world itself should be read as a system of visual signs.

Of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt remained most loyal to their ideals throughout his career. He was always keen to maximize the popular appeal and public visibility of his works.


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 Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their art, and published a periodical to promote their ideas.

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 colors, and complex compositions of Pre-Raphaelite Italian art.

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt 

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The Lady of Shalott

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The Lady of Shalott

Lady of Shalott – Interpretations


“The mirror crack’d from side to side
“The curse has come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.”

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott


Photo Credit: William Holman Hunt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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