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“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse

"The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse

“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse

“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.

Her frozen body was found afterwards by the knights and ladies of Camelot.

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” is one of Waterhouse’s most famous masterpieces, which features the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His artworks were notable for the depiction of women from ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend.

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse 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.

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 early 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 good 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.

Reflections

  • The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was devoted to representing nature and rejected the conventional methods of their time. How is nature expressed in this painting?
  • The Lady defies the curse to see if she could live outside of her confinement. What do you see in her face?

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Artists

The Lady of Shalott

  • Title:                     The Lady of Shalott
  • Artist:                    John William Waterhouse
  • Medium:               Oil on canvas
  • Date:                    1888
  • Style:                     Pre-Raphaelite
  • Dimensions:         183 cm × 230 cm (72 in × 91 in)
  • Museum:              Tate Britain

John William Waterhouse

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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: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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