John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) was one of the last major artists to paint mainly in Pre-Raphaelite style. This article concludes my short account of his career and paintings, to commemorate his death a century ago today.
His painting of Ariadne (1898) shows a strong influence from the Aesthetic Movement, and the likes of Leighton’s Flaming June (1895). Its underlying narrative is drawn from Ovid’s Heroides, in which Ariadne has just been abandoned by Theseus, whose ship is seen sailing away into the distance. The two leopards most probably appear in their role as attributes of Dionysus/Bacchus, providing a visual cue to the resolution of the narrative, as Ariadne will soon be joined by the god of wine.
Although Waterhouse seems not to have taken any private pupils, he was actively involved in teaching at the Royal Academy Schools during the period 1887-1902, and from 1892-1913 taught at the highly successful Saint John’s Wood Art School on the periphery of London, which also enjoyed the support of Alma-Tadema. In 1900, Waterhouse finally moved out of his studio at Primrose Hill, to a villa in Saint John’s Wood, where the Waterhouses also lived.
Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900) celebrates honesty in art, which was dear to Waterhouse throughout his career. It shows two young women discovering the severed head and lyre of the master musician and poet Orpheus, who had been torn apart by Maenads (Bacchantes) when he refused to engage in their worship and ceremonies. Waterhouse may well have seen Gustave Moreau’s Orpheus (1865), which had become popular with Symbolists of mainland Europe. A decade later, Waterhouse re-used its setting for another aesthetic work, The Charmer (1911).
Echo and Narcissus (1903) is one of Waterhouse’s finest narrative paintings, which is both surprisingly painterly and ingenious in telling two interlinked stories. Echo was originally a loquacious singing nymph, but was cursed by Zeus’ wife Hera to only be able to repeat the last words spoken. She then falls in love with Narcissus, who rejects her. Instead, when he pauses to drink from a spring, he falls in love with his own reflection.
Narcissus has long been a favourite subject for painters, but the challenges posed by Echo’s story are usually avoided – painting auditory subjects is very challenging. Waterhouse manages to combine the stories more successfully than anyone else.
Waterhouse had a particular affection for stories involving beautiful women enchanting brave warriors, as he had shown in Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891). This is his Jason and Medea (1907), showing the popular story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. When Jason reached Colchis, he underwent a series of trials imposed by King Aeëtes, culminating in Jason’s victory over the dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece. These were accomplished with the help of Medea, the King’s daughter, in return for a promise of marriage.
Medea is depicted as a sorceress, preparing perhaps the potion which Jason is to later give to the dragon. Jason appears anxious, ready to go and tackle his challenge. A year later, Waterhouse painted Apollo and Daphne (1908), which shows the climax of Ovid’s myth of the transformation of Daphne into the laurel.
By now, Waterhouse’s paintings were rapidly falling out of fashion. He resorted to painting portraits, something that he had hardly ever attempted before.
Just before the First World War broke out, Waterhouse painted his one and only religious work, The Annunciation (1914), which marked the final phase in his career. He turned now from classical myths to the Middle Ages.
By the time that he visited Camelot and the Lady of Shalott for the last time, Waterhouse was ill with cancer. However, “I am Half Sick of Shadows” said the Lady of Shalott (1915) is another great narrative painting which adheres closely to Tennyson’s story. The Lady sits looking wistfully into the (interior) distance, in front of her loom, on which she is weaving images.
What appears to be a window behind her is actually a very large circular mirror, reflecting the view of the outside which must be behind the viewer. This cleverly brings the viewer into her world, without showing the viewer in the mirror. She is surrounded by additional objects which provide abundant cues to what she is doing. In the (reflected) distance the river is shown running down to the large castellated palace of Camelot.
What is essentially a static scene turns out to be an examination of the reality of images, and of their reflections – a fitting subject for a great painter at the end of his career.
By the time that he completed Tristan and Isolde (1916), Waterhouse was becoming gravely ill. He returns to the theme of the enchantress and the warrior one last time. Tristan has travelled to Ireland to bring King Mark’s bride Iseult back for their wedding. On the return journey, they drink a potion which makes them fall hopelessly in love with one another, setting up the well-known love triangle.
John William Waterhouse died at home on 10 February 1917, at the age of 68.
Germany had just resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in an effort to stop allied shipping reaching Europe. The war was not going at all well for any of the nations involved, and the US was poised to enter it later in the year. Waterhouse’s death passed almost unnoticed, even by The Times newspaper. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that his paintings became more popular again.
Trippi P (2002) J. W. Waterhouse, Phaidon Press. ISBN 978 0 7148 4518 0.