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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Painting of the Month (68) Jan 2017: John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917) was a late-comer to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood school of painting. He worked at a date which was late enough for him to show influences of Impressionism in some of his later  work. His themes were pretty consistent throughout his career; ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend, often depicting women in a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite style.
The Lady of Shalott by J W Waterhouse, 1888, Tate Modern, London
The first and best of three versions he made of this subject.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem, The Lady of Shalottbased on medieval legends of King Arthur, in 1833 with a revised version in 1842. The story is that the lady was a prisoner in a tower on the island of Shalott which was situated in a river leading downstream to Camelot. We don't know who she was or why she was being punished but she could only see images of the world in her mirror. She weaved these images into a multi-coloured web but was under threat of an unknown curse if she looked upon Camelot or any of it's people. One day she saw and fell in love with Sir Lancelot, a Knight of the Round Table and her fate was sealed. We see her floating down toward Camelot and to her tragic demise.
The painting is an interesting mix of both symbolism and realism. The palette (range of colours used) is very autumnal as is the low-cast light level. I have sampled some of the these colours below to illustrate this point.
The artist has succeeded in maintaining a balance between realism and what we might call 'other-worldliness'. Her unkempt hair and the untidy reeds in the foreground along with her expression symbolises her despair. She could also be said to symbolise the position of women in Victorian Britain - she is not in control of her destiny. Waterhouse has kept a sense of realism with his clever use of depth in the background landscape and the surface of the water. As she emerges from the dark woods behind her she is brightly lit so she remains the focus of our attention. To her left you can see some steps leading down to the water, which I think she has just walked down to begin her fateful journey. There are three candles on the far side of the boat, only one of which is still burning and toward the bow of the boat is a crucifix, all of which symbolises her impending untimely death. Draped over the side of the boat is one of her tapestries, a direct reference to Tennyson's poem.
In summary, we have a realistic scene of a 'fairy-tale' woman heavily symbolic of both the time in which it was made and of faithful reference to Tennyson's poem.
Below are Waterhouse's two other paintings of this subject. In both works we can see her tapestry loom and, in the background, the mirror, her only view of the world until she looks at Lancelot.
Having just got back from a long weekend in France I'm feeling all Frenchified and I am listening to Françoise Hardy: 
La maison où j'ai grandi (click to listen).
I used to be in love with her - probably still am. My wife understands....

8 comments:

John said...

Bonjour Bazza! Is the Lady of Shalott the first person to have bred the onions?! HA HA! Seriously though, when I first saw the painting and before reading your excellent, as usual post, I thought that it looked Arthurian! Maybe I am not as daft as I look!?
J

bazza said...

Come on John - who could be as daft as you look? :-)
At least you didn't say "Aye, aye that's yer lot!"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi John - I'd never heard of this chap ... though the style of art work - yes ... and yes it reminded me of Millais' "Ophelia" somewhat ... also reminded me of Ellen Terry and her beetle wing dress - painted by John Singer Sarjent ... both of those red-heads.

Thank you for the very rich post ... so interesting to learn about - I'm a duff re artists, but do enjoy adding some extra knowledge ... and to know that this is a 'direct' interpretation of Tennyson's poem ...

Fascinating ... have you got any cheeses, or vino, or ... other delicious goodies - hope and expect you had a wonderful time ... cheers Hilary

PS Francoise Hardy is gorgeous and can understand your attraction ... glad your wife does!

Hels said...

My first learning about Waterhouse was accidental, as learning often is. The Tennysons rented their Isle of Wight house in 1853 and stayed there for the next 40 years. Visitors to the house included artists Edward Lear, William Holman Hunt, George Frederick Watts and Sir John Everett Millais, Sir Edward Burne-Jones and, later, John Waterhouse! He may have been 20+ years younger than the other PRB, but Waterhouse certainly knew how to mix with the Great and the Good.

I didn't like his young works particularly, but the paintings from 1890 until WW1 were much stronger.

bazza said...

Hilary: Cheese, beer and wine - fully loaded. I can hardly close the fridge door! I managed to resist the chocolate this time according to Mrs Bazza's wishes. I think she was glad I did.....

bazza said...

Hels: Thank you for that extra background information. Although he was younger than the others his work generally matched their standards.

Sherry Ellis said...

That's a very beautiful painting (aside from the expression on her face). I love all the detail. What a talented artist! Thanks for sharing all the additional information about it.

bazza said...

Sherry: That excess of detail is one of the characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite painting and, of course, her mournful expression although unattractive, is just what the artist wanted to convey!