“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott”
by John William Waterhouse
“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.
The frame of the loom and the geometric tiles of the floor contrast with the vivid colors of nature outside. The title of the painting is a quotation from the last two lines in the final verse of the second part of Tennyson’s poem:
“But in her web, she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
The Lady of Shalott.”
This painting depicts an earlier point in the tale than that represented by the previous two works by Waterhouse. In this painting, the mirror reveals a bridge over a river leading to the walls and towers of Camelot. The scene is set shortly before an image of Lancelot appears in the mirror. Lancelot enticed the Lady out of her tower to her death.
John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 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.
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.
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 sympathize 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.
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott
- Title: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott
- Artist: John William Waterhouse
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Date: 1915
- Style: Pre-Raphaelite
- Dimensions: Height: 100.3 cm (39.4 ″); Width: 73.7 cm (29 ″)
- Museum: Art Gallery of Ontario
John William Waterhouse
- Name: John William Waterhouse
- Movement: Pre-Raphaelite
- Born: 1849 – Rome, Papal States
- Died: 1917 (aged 67) – London, England, United Kingdom
- Nationality: British
- Notable works:
Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Artists
- By John Everett Millais
- By John William Waterhouse
- By Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- By Marie Spartali Stillman
- Love’s Messenger
“Great events make me quiet and calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.”
– Queen Victoria
Photo Credit: John William Waterhouse [Public domain]