John William Waterhouse. Part 5.

Sirens, mermaids, nudes and controversy

In my last look at John William Waterhouse’s life and artwork I am reverting to his love of mythological subjects and his love of women regaled in verse by well-known poets and story tellers. It was Waterhouse’s ability to depict beautiful women which made him popular with the public of the time.

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1905)

In 1905 Waterhouse completed a work entitled Lamia. Although the name conjures up a gentle soul, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The word lamia means vampire, witch, sorceress, ghoul, or enchantress and the character emanates from Greek mythology. According to Greek myth, following the killing of Lamia’s children by the goddess, Hera, she sought vengeance by sucking the blood of men she seduced and devouring their children. Waterhouse was drawn to the subject through John Keats’ 1819 narrative poem Lamia. The poet however does not openly condemn the animal-woman as evil, but rather dwells on her beauty and the sexual excitement she offers. In the painting we see the foot of the soldier treading on the tail of the serpent Lamia and we see the scales she has shed wrapped around the back of her legs.  These colourful scales contrast with her pale arms which she holds out towards the soldier. In all, Waterhouse completed three versions of this work, all around the same size. The original one, which was exhibited at the 1905 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, was purchased by Sir Alexander Henderson, Baron Faringdon, whose family members were keen patrons of Waterhouse.

La Belle Dame sans Merci by John William Waterhouse (1893)

Another of Keats’ maidens featured in a work by Waterhouse. In 1820 Keats penned his poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Woman without Mercy). It tells of a knight who meets a beautiful enchantress.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

The knight has fallen in love with this beautiful delicate creature but is she all that she seems? The knight is besotted and falls into a sleep and dreams of how he first met the female. However, in the knight’s dreams he is warned against a liaison with this beautiful maiden.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!

On waking from his sleep, he finds the maiden has gone and he is heartbroken. The setting for this work is a dense wood which symbolises both a sense of entanglement and moral confusion. Waterhouse’s painting is at the point in the poem when the knight meets the woman. He is depicted bending down towards her. He is totally bemused by her beauty as he looks at her upturned face. On the right sleeve of the woman there is a heart. She entraps the knight coiling her long hair around his neck like a serpent capturing its prey. She is tying her hair in a knot so as to entrap the knight. She pulls him towards her. She stares at him and he is lost, almost as if he has been hypnotised by her beauty. He has dropped his lance to the ground which metaphorically is a sign of his defencelessness, a powerlessness against her wiles and also symbolises a loss of his masculine virility. This beautiful sprite has emasculated him. It is a highly sensual work as we look upon the knight and the woman gazing into each other’s eyes. There is a tenseness about the depiction but as we know, once their lips meet, the knight will be lost. In a way Waterhouse’s depiction plays on the fears of men about their vulnerability at the hands of the fairer sex. It is also a statement regarding woman’s constant need to be loved.

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse

The interaction between males and females was of continuing interest to Waterhouse and he would often depict such interplay between the sexes by portraying mythological stories.  In his 1896 he completed a painting entitled Hylas and the Nymphs, the setting of which is somewhere deep in an overgrown woodland surrounding a murky pond with its clumps of reeds and lilies. It is very reminiscent of the setting in John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia. The depiction comes from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Hylas, a very handsome youth, was one of Jason’s crew. When Jason’s boat landed on an island during his search for the Golden Fleece, Hylas was sent ashore to bring back some fresh water for the men. Hylas found a pool in a clearing and he reached down and put his pitcher into the water but before he could raise his pitcher, he looked up to discover water nymphs encircling him and we know that he is doomed. They were enticed by his beauty, and one of the nymphs reached up to kiss him. Immediately Hylas disappeared without trace, never to be found again and after a protracted search for his missing crewman,  Jason decided to leave the island and continue with his travels.

Preliminary sketch for Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

The painting depicts the woodland pond in which we see the seven bare-breasted nymphs bathing, whilst, on the bank, we see Hylas kneeling down with his pitcher immersed in the water. There is a gentle sexuality about these captivating naked nymphs in the translucent water. Hylas’ olive skin tone is darker than that of the cream skin tones of the nymphs which contrasts with their dark hair. Although the legend describes Hylas as a very handsome man, our eyes immediately alight on the central nymph, who has hypnotised Hylas with her beauty and in some way has mesmerised us, the viewers of the painting. The painting was not complete by the time of the 1896 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and instead, was shown at the Manchester Autumn Exhibition, and was, following the event, purchased by the Manchester Corporation. They then allowed it to be displayed at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1897. The painting was later loaned to a number of international exhibitions including the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle.

Hylas and the Nymphs (detail) by John William Waterhouse

The painting was the centre of a controversy in 2018 when the curator of the Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove the painting from the walls of the permanent collection. What triggered the removal? Some believed because of the nudity on display in the work. The official stance was that removal of the painting was part of an art project by British Afro-Caribbean artist Sonia Boyce inspired by the MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. A film of the removal of the picture was screened at the gallery with the intention being to inspire debate about the presentation of women ! There was an instant backlash from the public with regards this removal and the national press had a field day when the curator had to reverse her decision. The Daily Mail of February 5th 2018 splashed the headline:

Offensive nymphs are back on display at Manchester Art Gallery after backlash when artwork was taken over fear it was offensive to women.

Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs was taken down, it was ‘offensive to women’.  A curator had claimed that the 1896 artwork perpetuated ‘outdated and damaging stories’ that ‘women are either femmes fatale or passive bodies’
A gallery accused of censorship after removing a pre-Raphaelite masterpiece for supposedly being offensive to women has made a humiliating U-turn.
After a furious backlash against Manchester Art Gallery for taking down John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, the painting returned to pride of place over the weekend.

The Manchester Gallery had then to formulate a statement explaining the removal and subsequent return.  Amanda Wallace, Interim Director Manchester Art Gallery, said:

“…We’ve been inundated with responses to our temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs as part of the forthcoming Sonia Boyce exhibition, and it’s been amazing to see the depth and range of feelings expressed.  The painting is rightly acknowledged as one of the highlights of our Pre-Raphaelite collection, and over the years has been enjoyed by millions of visitors to the gallery.  We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.  Throughout the painting’s seven-day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues…”

Hylas and the Water Nymphs by Henrietta Rae (1909)

It is ironic that such a supposed declaration by the Manchester gallery that the painting was somewhat sexist and against feminist principles in the way it depicted naked women as the great Victorian painter and staunch supporter of feminism and women’s suffrage, and organiser of an exhibition of female artists for the Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Henrietta Rae, produced a similar painting in 1909.

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse (1900)

In traditional folklore, the mermaid was looked upon as being a traditional siren who lured unsuspecting sailors to their doom with her mesmerising songs. She was half fish, half human and longed for the company of men. It was these legendary figures that inspired Waterhouse to complete a number of paintings featuring mermaids and sirens. In 1900 he completed the painting entitled A Mermaid which is now part of the Royal Academy collection. Waterhouse’s interest in this subject was because of its mystical temptress whose beauty and charisma proved deadly to men. Yet it was the mermaid’s inability to form a meaningful relationship with a human being that was in itself a curse which fated her to live an unfulfilled life. It could be that Waterhouse’s interest in this aspect was more to do with how men became anxious when confronted by an enchanting female as capitulating to such feelings could have a tragic outcome. In the painting we see a mermaid combing out her long red hair whilst singing a hypnotic song and by combining these elements Waterhouse is making the connection between the narcissistic trait of females with man’s vulnerability when it comes to beautiful women. Before the mermaid, there is a large shell containing pearls, which legend has it are formed by the tears of dead sailors. The mermaid is perched on a rock and her tail has coiled around her, almost as if she is hugging herself. Once again Waterhouse’s depiction could have been influenced by Tennyson’s 1830 poem, The Mermaid, with the lines:

Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Singing alone,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?

The Siren by John William Waterhouse (1900)

That same year, 1900, Waterhouse completed a similar work entitled The Siren. This was his belated (by five years) Royal Academy Diploma Picture after being elected a full Academician in 1895. In this work Waterhouse has the mermaid perched on a rock and the shell we saw in A Mermaid painting has been supplanted by a musical instrument, the lyre. In The Siren, Waterhouse has depicted the siren looking down upon the drowning sailor. The expression on the siren’s face is somewhat mystifying as it is one of inquisitiveness and not one would expect from a “creature” who is about to watch the sailor drown in the raging sea. It is almost a look of compassion. The expression on the sailor’s face is one of pleading to be saved.

John William Waterhouse (c.1886)

In 1915, John William Waterhouse was diagnosed as having liver cancer and two years later, he died at home on February 10th 1917 at the age of 68, and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London. Thirteen years after his death., his widow, through Christies, sold one hundred of her late husband’s works. Sadly, by that time, Waterhouse’s works had become unfashionable and his famous painting Ophelia was purchased for a meagre £450. However, by the 1960’s his work has become more popular and the postcard of his painting Lady of Shalott has become the Tate’s best-seller. His reputation was further enhanced in 2000 when his painting St Cecilia fetched £6.6 million at auction. It was the highest price ever paid for a Victorian painting. There was a major retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy in 2009 at which Waterhouse was described as:

“…one of Britain’s best-loved nineteenth century painters…”

In the exhibition catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, a biographer of Waterhouse wrote in the introduction:

“…Coursing through the pictures, across five decades, are Waterhouse’s fascination with melancholy, magic, and the thrilling dangers of love and beauty… they are lyrical in the truest sense of the word – imbued with the same hypnotic power possessed by the ancient poets who sang their stories. This was also a man particularly enthralled with female beauty and the power of women over men, over nature, over each other – no matter how sturdy or fragile they might appear physically…”

Advertisements

John William Waterhouse. Part 4.

Dolce Far Niente, Tennyson and Herrick

John William Waterhouse (c.1886)

In the last blog on John William Waterhouse I looked at his paintings which focused on sorcery, sorceresses and Homer’s famous work The Odyssey with tales of death and bloodshed. In the blog today I am taking a more relaxed and soothing road and consider the beautiful women who featured in some of his best loved works.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Godward

The phrase Dolce far Niente was the title of a number of eighteenth-century paintings by well-known artists of the time. The Italian phrase literally means “sweet doing nothing, or sweet idleness”. In essence it meant doing nothing and enjoying it. John William Godward was an English painter born in 1861 and lived during the end of the Neo-Classicist era. He was a protégé of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema but unfortunately his style of painting fell out of favour with the unstoppable progression of modern art. Saddened by this inexorable fact of life, he committed suicide at the age of 61 and purportedly wrote a suicide note in which he stated that the world is not big enough for [both] myself and a Picasso.

II Dolce ar Niente by William Holman Hunt (1866)

Another painter to have Dolce far Niente for the title of his work was William Holman Hunt with his 1867 painting, which was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. His friend and lover, the professional artist’s model, Annie Miller, sat for Hunt for this work but due to a falling-out with the artist half way through the painting Hunt had to enlist the help of Fanny Waugh, the daughter of a chemist whom he later married.

Dolce Far niente by Auguste Toulmouche (1877)

Before I look at Waterhouse’s two paintings which have the same title, I will show you one more. Auguste Toulmouche was a nineteenth century painter noted for his luxurious portraits of Parisian women and he completed his painting Dolce far Niente in 1877.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Waterhouse (1879)

However, this blog is all about John William Waterhouse so let us look at his two versions of the subject. His first work was completed in 1879 and is a depiction of a sensual and elaborately dressed female, lying on a rug with her head on green velvet pillow, whilst white feathers flutter down and stand out against the paler white of the wall. Waterhouse loved his painting and when it was exhibited that year at the Dudley Gallery, he put an 80 guineas price tag on the work, which was treble what he usually asked for his works on sale at that gallery. Waterhouse’s choice of title for the painting suggests that he wanted to associate himself with the light-hearted Italianate subjects of several of his contemporaries who chose settings of the island of Capri for their works. In just a few years Waterhouse’s reputation would eclipse these very painters. Once again, when the painting was exhibited, many commented on the similarity of the depiction and the setting to the works of Alma-Tadema, who was thirteen years older than Waterhouse and still better known. In the top right we can see a Pompeian-style light. On the floor, stands a deep-blue glass vase out of which emerges a sunflower.

Dolce Far Niente by John William Waterhouse (1880)

The following year, 1880, Waterhouse completed another work with the same title, Dolce Far Niente. This much larger work (50 x 96cms) is housed in the Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery in Scotland. The painting depicts everyday life in the ancient world and is very much in the style of Alma-Tadema who often used a composition which was derived from ancient vase paintings which represented drinking parties, and often depicted women reclining on couches with small tables in front of them bearing vases of flowers, statuettes or drinking vessels. In this work by Waterhouse we see brilliant yellow daffodils and a small jug lying atop a marble and bronze table similar to what was found in Pompeii which Waterhouse would have seen when he visited the museum in Naples in 1877.

Scene at Pompeii by John William Waterhouse (1877)

Behind the couch there are a number of colonnades with their distinctive red and white colouring, examples of which were part of the interiors found at Pompeii. When Waterhouse returned to his birthplace, Italy, in 1877, it was the first time he had visited the country since his family left in 1854 when he was five years old. In 1860 the Italian archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli, introduced new excavation techniques which concentrated on clearing rubble from the ruins of Pompeii and restoring architectural spaces of the town. Waterhouse saw the fruits of the archaeologist’s work when he visited the site and completed a number of watercolour paintings of the cleared areas. In his watercolour entitled Scene at Pompeii we once again see the red and white colonnades which were present in his Dolce Far Niente painting.

In Part 3, I looked at Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shallott and talked about how it was linked to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem of that name. My next painting by Waterhouse is also linked to a Tennyson poem, his 1830 ode, Mariana. The poet was inspired by the character of Mariana in Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure which was first performed in 1604. Rejected by her fiancé, Angelo, after her dowry was lost in a shipwreck, Mariana leads an isolated existence in a moated grange for five years. Her feelings of loneliness and yearning are spiralling out of control. Her incarceration is a metaphor for unfulfilled sexual longing. However, despite her loneliness, she is still in love with Angelo who has become Deputy to the Duke of Vienna and she yearns to be reunited with him. The poem follows a common theme in much of Tennyson’s work—that of hopeless isolation. Mariana is a woman who endlessly bemoans her lack of connection with society. This isolation defines her existence, and her yearning for a relationship with people leaves her desperate and left her wishing for death which is stated at the end of every stanza in the poem. The one subtle difference between Shakespeare’s story and the tale encompassed within Tennyson’s poem is that Shakespeare has Mariana’s lover return to her whereas Tennyson’s work ends before Mariana’s lover returns.  The depiction we see before us is based on a stanza of the poem:

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!

Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, “The day is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary
I would that I were dead!”

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, “The night is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!”

Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse (1897)

Look how Waterhouse has painted the angled reflection of the oval mirror. The floor he has painted is made up of black and white tiles which stretch off towards the door giving a sense of emptiness and highlights Mariana’s solitude. Behind the mirror, at the top left of the painting, we can just make out the altar to the Madonna at which Mariana has been praying. In some ways Tennyson and Waterhouse seek to connect the imposed purity of Mariana with the purity of the Virgin.

Mariana by John Everett Millais (1851)

As was the case with the Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse was probably influenced by another of John Everett Millais’ famous paintings, that of his 1851 portrayal of Mariana which appeared at that year’s Royal Academy exhibition. Waterhouse probably saw the work when it was displayed at an exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886 and later in an exhibition held in Birmingham. Millais depicted Mariana, isolated in a remote farmhouse awaiting the return of her lover. She is standing before a table on which is her embroidery depicting the garden outside and behind that is a stained-glass window showing the Annunciation, which he copied from the window of the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. The small stained-glass side window, to the right of the table, includes the motto In coelo quies which means In Heaven there is rest and this bears out the last line of each of Tennyson’s stanzas which refer to Mariana’s desire to be dead. It is Autumn and scattered around are fallen leaves symbolising the passing of time. Mariana in this painting is seen stretching her back after hours sitting working on her embroidery.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, by John William Waterhouse (1909)

Waterhouse completed two works in the early 1900’s based on a verse of a poem written by the seventeenth century English poet and cleric, Robert Herrick, in 1684. The poem was entitled To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time and the first line is the title of two of Waterhouse’s paintings.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The poem is in the genre of carpe diem, which means “seize the day”, or “enjoy yourself while you have the chance”. The setting for this 1909 work is a warm sunny Spring day in the countryside, and a field full of wild flowers crossed by a small stream. In the foreground two women gracefully bend down to pick the flowers. One is dressed in blue/violet robes whilst the other, with bright red hair similar to that seen in many Pre-Raphaelite works, is dressed all in pink. In the background there is a distant mountain range depicted in various blue tones. In the mid-ground there is a wood and we can see two other women, standing amongst the trees, also collecting flowers. It is Waterhouse’s first in a series of works motivated by the story of the Greek goddess Persephone in which the virtuous young woman who had been out in the meadow picking flowers on the plain of Enna, is abducted by Pluto. Her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, is so distressed and angered by the turn of events she curses the world with a long drawn out winter broken only by her daughter’s return to earth each Spring. The women have a seasonal time constraint for the picking of the flowers and so, as the painting’s title suggests, they are only able to gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May by John William Waterhouse (1908)

A year earlier Waterhouse completed a painting with a similar title which showed a red-haired woman presenting a bowl of flowers. Her head is reflected in a mirror behind her. The flowers in the bowl are beautiful roses but as Herrick’s poem reminds us in his carpe diem poem:

“…And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying…”

The beautiful roses of today would be dying tomorrow.

..………..to be continued.

 

John William Waterhouse. Part 3

Sorceresses and a tale from Homer.

Despite Waterhouse marrying his wife Esther in a Church of England church and attending services there, he continued to be fascinated by the occult and magic rituals. Miracles, magic, and the capacity to prophesise were common motifs in many of Waterhouse’s paintings. His 1884 work entitled Consulting the Oracle was a depiction of one such ritual.

Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse (1884)

The painting depicts a group of seven young women, all seated in a semicircle around a lamplit shrine. There is excitement in their facial expressions as they listen to the words of the priestess who is interpreting the words of the Oracle. The Oracle was sometimes referred to as the Teraph. A Teraph (plural Teraphim), according to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, a western translation of the Torah from the land of Israel, the Teraphim were originally human heads, taken from first born male adults who had been sacrificed. The head was then shaved salted and spiced. It was believed that Teraphic heads could talk and give guidance. In Waterhouse’s painting, the Teraph or Oracle was fixed against a wall and in front of it were lighted lamps. Such was the performance of the priestess that the fascinated female onlookers were although enthusiastic were also tense and became agitated, so much so, that they too believed that they had heard the Oracle’s low voice speaking of what was to happen in the future. The atmosphere in the room is intoxicating with presence of incense from the burning lamps. The priestess signals to the women to be quiet whilst she struggles to hear the Oracle’s words. She moves her ear close to the lips of the Teraph and, as we see in the depiction, she turns to the women with a spellbound expression, causing a tenseness in the demeanour of her followers as they await the pronouncements that have emanated from the mummified head.  Anthony Hobson in his 1980 book, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849-1917, compares the painting’s depiction to the shape of a keyhole:

“…This refers not to some telescopic view of the scene but to the keyhole shape of the figure grouping, in which a ring of spectators concentrate their attention upon another single figure…”

Study for ‘The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch’s House in Cairo’ by John Frederick Lewis (1864)

The background is made up of a series of arched windows and the painting’s setting was probably invented by Waterhouse but even knowing that, it still has an enigmatic Middle Eastern feeling and he could well have been influenced by the orientalist paintings of John Frederick Lewis.

The Illustrated London News featured the picture, Consulting the Oracle,  as one of the principal works of the year and reproduced it across two pages of the journal’s extra supplement. The painting was bought by Sir Henry Tate, the English sugar merchant and philanthropist, who included it in his founding bequest to the nation in 1894 and can be found in the Tate Britain collection.

The Magic Circle by John Willoiam Waterhouse (1886)

Two years later Waterhouse completed another painting in the same vein, entitled The Magic Circle. This was Waterhouse’s first painting since being elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Egyptian architecture acts as a backdrop to the painting. The main character is a dark-haired sorceress chanting invocations over a bubbling cauldron whilst simultaneously marking out in the ground the magic circle cited in the title of the work. As the stick drags along the earth it creates smoke and the circle starts to glow white. In her left hand she grasps a druidical boline, a sickle-like implement which was used by witches to harvest magical herbs, some of which can be seen tucked into a sash around her waist.

An Ouroboros

Around her neck is an Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. This is one of the oldest mystical symbols in the world and appears in many cultures. It characterises the circle of life, conception out of destruction,  life out of death, in an everlasting cycle of renewal and was closely related to the Egyptian legend of Isis and Osiris, the first Pharaoh of Egypt, who married Isis, his one true love. In Britain in the 1880’s Egyptian legends and the occult were very popular. To add to this air of dark mystery we see the sorceress surrounded by a sinister group of ravens, which, in pagan belief, are portents and messengers of bad luck. If we should have any doubt about their symbolism look at the raven standing behind her. It is perched on a skull and cries out to the sorceress.

Medea by Frederick Sandys (1868)

Other paintings by his contemporaries may have influenced Waterhouse to complete such a work. There was Frederick Sandys’ famous 1868 work, Medea, which also depicted an evil dark-haired sorceress chanting over a simmering pot with her magic accoutrements set out on the table before her. This painting was submitted to the hanging jury of the Royal Academy for inclusion in the 1868 Summer Exhibition but it was rejected. Art historians talk about this rejection as having nothing to do with the quality of the work but the rejection was solely a matter of internal politics, and petty jealousies.

Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c.1878)

Another work thought to have influenced and inspired Waterhouse to paint The Magic Circle was Dante Rossetti’s 1878 painting, Astarte Syriaca, the ancient Syrian goddess of love.

Another sorceress who featured in Waterhouse’s paintings was Circe, a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology. Circe was famous for her extensive knowledge of potions and herbs. Through the use of these and a magic wand or staff, she would transform her enemies into animals.  Waterhouse did not exhibit any of his work at the 1890 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This was the first time he had failed to put forward a work for the exhibition since his first offering in 1874. It is thought the reason was two-fold. At the beginning of 1890 his father died and this was a very emotional time for Waterhouse. The second reason was that he spent much of his time in 1890 travelling around Italy. With the arrival of 1891 came the arrival of a turning point in Waterhouse’s art. He abandoned the series of subjects from ancient history and embarked on a project focused on myths and legends of pagan antiquity. It was a time when his work began to feature mythological subjects and Alfred Baldry, an English art critic and painter, wrote in his 1895 article for The Studio, an illustrated fine arts and decorative arts magazine, that he had observed that Waterhouse’s new conviction was a definite inclination towards a picturesque mysticism and that he was a painter of mystic suggestions.

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses by John William Waterhouse (1891)

After not exhibiting at the Royal Academy the previous year, Waterhouse completed two paintings featuring Circe, both drawn from Homer’s Odyssey and the story of the wanderings of Ulysses to the mouth of the underworld. One painting was entitled Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses which Waterhouse exhibited at the New Gallery in London, which had been founded in 1888. The New Gallery was an important venue for Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movement artists. Many of the well-known artists of the time exhibited their work at this new gallery including Edward Burne-Jones, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, William Holman Hunt, George Frederic Watts and Lord Leighton. In the depiction we see the figure of Circe regally enthroned between two bronze lions.  Circe dominates the depiction as she towers above the observer. She has transformed Ulysses’ men into swine, two of which we see lying on the floor besides her throne. All we see of Ulysses is his small reflection in the circular mirror behind her. He is hesitant as he reaches for his sword. In Homer’s tale, Ulysses takes control and overpowers Circe but in Waterhouse’s depiction it is all about the power of the sorceress as she raises her magic wand and threatens the interloper. Circe is dressed in a transparent blue gauze, which has slipped down on one side revealing her breast. Through the gauze we see her limbs. She looks haughtily down at Ulysses who she intends to seduce.

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891)

Waterhouse’s other painting, which he completed in 1891, was included in that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The dramatic work was simply entitled Ulysses and the Sirens and is currently housed in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. It once again represented a passage from Homer’s Odyssey and the event comes after Ulysses had encountered Circe and was now on his way out of the Underworld. It is a pictorial account of his meeting with the Sirens, the bird women whose bewitching songs lure incautious sailors and their ships on to dangerous rocks and to their deaths. Waterhouse had a note appended to the painting when it was exhibited noting that it was Circe who had instructed Ulysses to resist the Siren’s baneful songs by stopping the ears of his men with wax and had himself bound to the mast of the ship and by adding this note Waterhouse had insured that people knew about Circe and her magic arts and reminded them of the connection between this work and the one he was exhibiting at the New Gallery. Waterhouse also wanted to remind people that it was not just through the bravery of Ulysses that his boat and crew had survived the Sirens but it was through the advice of Circe. It is interesting to note that Waterhouse depicted seven sirens whereas in Homer’s tale there were only two. Maybe it was because the number seven is looked upon as the “magic number”. Waterhouse has depicted each Siren with the body of a bird and the head of a beautiful woman and it is thought he had seen a similar depiction on an ancient Greek vase housed in the British Museum.

Marina piccola, Capri.

The imaginary setting of this work could have come from Waterhouse’s Italian travels especially the time he spent in Capri and what we see in the work is very similar to the rock formation of the Marina Piccola which lies below the town of Capri. The painting received enormous praise from the art critics of the time.  Marion Spielmann, the prolific Victorian art critic and scholar and who was the editor of The Connoisseur and Magazine of Art,  and looked upon as one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world. Of Waterhouse’s painting, he declared it to be:

“…a very startling triumph … a very carnival of colour, mosaicked and balanced with a skill more consummate than even the talented artist was credited with … The quality of the painting is … a considerable advance upon all his antecedent work…”

The painting was bought by Sir Hubert von Herkomer for the National Gallery of Victoria, in June 1891, the Ulysses was only the second work by John William Waterhouse to be acquired for a public gallery.

Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea. by John William Waterhouse (1892)

A year later Circe is depicted in another of Waterhouse’s paintings. The 1892 work is entitled Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea. It is a dramatic vertical format which only adds to the menacing storyline. The scene depicted by Waterhouse comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Circe is angered by the refusal of the fisherman turned sea god, Glaucus, to abandon his beloved Scylla and takes revenge by pouring a baneful of green poison into the pool where she knows Scylla often bathes. Circe took plants of poisonous powers and mixed them together, with incantations and charms and poured her poisonous mixture into the pool and muttered over it incantations of mighty power. Scylla came as usual and plunged into the water up to her waist. The poisoned water transformed the lower half of her body into barking dogs.

Circe by John William Waterhouse (1914)

Waterhouse returned to the Circe motif around 1914 when he completed two more oil sketches featuring the sorceress. In one we see Circe, in profile, with her hair swept back in a tight bun sitting forward in a marble chair with her elbows resting on a marble table. She wears a bright red shift dress. She is lost in contemplation. In front of her, on the table, is an open manuscript. To her right is a bottle containing a red potion. All around her are all her tools needed for her magic arts.

Sketch of Circe by John William Waterhouse (c.1914)

As in the previous work, in this second oil sketch, we see Circe resting her chin on her hands and in this version, we see her clasping her magic wand. The sketch is more detailed. To her right is a stone-arched window through which we glimpse a dense and dark forest. In front of the window we see a book of spells propped up for her to read. A flask containing a red potion sits on top of table and in front of her there is a gold chalice which has tipped up and a red liquid has spilt on the table. On the opposite side of the square table are three wild animals who stare at Circe.

..…………….to be continued.

John William Waterhouse. Part 2.

Marriage and women destined to suffer.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by John William Waterhouse (1885)

In 1883 John William Waterhouse married Esther Maria Kenworthy, a noted flower painter. She was the daughter of James Lee Kenworthy, an artist and schoolmaster from Ealing and Elizabeth Kenworthy who was also a schoolteacher. Waterhouse was thirty-four-years-old and Esther was eight years younger. The marriage took place at the Church of England parish church in Ealing, and thereafter Waterhouse’s wife used the name Esther Kenworthy Waterhouse. At the beginning of their married life the couple lived close by a purpose-built artistic colony in Primrose Hill, where the houses also had studios. Primrose Hill Studios, built in 1877, was a development of twelve artist houses around a quadrangle in a mews off Regent’s Park. Waterhouse already rented a studio at No. 3 Primrose Hill Studios, which he had leased since 1878, and later moved to a much bigger studio at No.6.

Self portrait by William Logsdail

One of the Waterhouses’ neighbours at the Primrose Hill Studios was the prolific Antwerp-trained English landscape, portrait, and genre painter, William Logsdail. The Primrose Hill Studios complex was, as Logsdail later recalled, a place that the artists around the courtyard ‘formed a happy family, in and out of each other’s studios during the day, and in the evening swapping stories over the cards and whisky or dining at “the Bull and Bush” on Hampstead Heath’.

John William Waterhouse by William Logsdail (1887)

Logsdail recorded in 1917 that he used friends and colleagues from the Primrose Hill Studios – including four members of the Waterhouse family – to act as models for parts of his London cityscape paintings. It is the connection and friendship between Waterhouse and Logsdail, which brought about questions as to who painted the small oil on board portrait of Waterhouse in 1887. At first, it was looked upon as a self-portrait but in 2002 Peter Trippi, the leading authority on Waterhouse, questioned the attribution, suggesting that the sketch was not a self-portrait but in fact it had been painted by William Logsdail, In the painting we see that Waterhouse’s features half-hidden under a thick reddish-brown moustache and beard. The portrait went to auction, run by John Physick, Waterhouse’s great-nephew, at the Canterbury Auction Galleries, in May 2011. Even then, it was deemed as a self-portrait by Waterhouse.   However, in Trippi’s words this head is ‘absolutely a modern-life image made by a trusted colleague or friend’. It is the first example of Logsdail’s work to enter London’s National Portrait Gallery Collection. The attribution to Logsdail has now been established beyond doubt.

St Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (1885)

In 1885 John William Waterhouse was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. This election to full membership status came shortly after he exhibited a painting, the depiction of which was one that engendered great discussion with regards its depiction. The work was entitled Saint Eulalia, who was a twelve-year-old martyr. When the work was exhibited it came with a note from Waterhouse:

“…’Prudentius says that the body of St. Eulalia was shrouded “by the miraculous fall of snow when lying in the forum after her martyrdom…”

Aurelius Prudentius Clemens was a Roman Christian poet who was born in Northern Spain and who practiced law, as well as holding two provincial governorships.  He was awarded a high position by the Roman emperor Theodosius but tiring of court life, he devoted the rest of his time, from about 392, to writing poems on Christian themes.

Eulalia of Mérida was a devout Christian girl, aged between twelve and fourteen years old who lived in Mérida, Spain, and who was killed during the Persecution of Diocletian around 304AD. The Diocletianic persecutions, sometimes referred to as the Great Persecution, was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In 303 AD, the four Roman Emperors, Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius set out a series of pronouncements withdrawing the legal rights of Christians and ordered them to observe the traditional religious practices. The story goes that Eulalia ran away to the law court of the governor Dacian at Emerita, and stubbornly professed herself a Christian. She then went on to insult the pagan gods and emperor Maximian, and defied the authorities challenging them to martyr her.

Manuscript of the Sequence of Saint Eulalia written in 880 AD.

The story is told in a book of twenty-nine verses, The Sequence of Saint Eulalia, also known as the Canticle of Saint Eulalia, which is a ninth century biography of Saint Eulalia and tells how she resisted pagan threats despite being tortured. Finally, she was executed and became a Christian martyr. Below is a translation of a passage of The Sequence of Saint Eulalia.

Eulalia was a good girl,
She had a beautiful body, a soul more beautiful still.
The enemies of God wanted to overcome her,
they wanted to make her serve the devil.
She does not listen to the evil counsellors,
(who want her) to deny God, who lives up in heaven.
Not for gold, nor silver, nor jewels,
not for the king’s threats or entreaties,
nothing could ever persuade the girl
not to love continually the service of God.
And for this reason she was brought before Maximian,
who was king in those days over the pagans.
He exhorts her — but she does not care —
to abandon the name of Christian;
She gathers up her strength.  And subsequently worship his god.
She would rather undergo persecution
Than lose her spiritual purity.
For these reasons she died in great honor.
They threw her into the fire so that she would burn quickly.
She had no sins, for this reason she did not burn.
The pagan king did not want to give in to this;
He ordered her head to be cut off with a sword.
The girl did not oppose that idea:
She wants to abandon earthly life, and she calls upon Christ.
In the form of a dove she flew to heaven.
Let us all pray that she will deign to pray for us
That Christ may have mercy on us
And may allow us to come to Him after death
Through His grace.

For some, this painting by Waterhouse the pictorial story was a too  gory and disturbing subject and for some it was too much to behold.  Many of the public who had never heard of Eulalia were shocked by the story and depiction. For Waterhouse it was all about women being subjected to a horrible and undeserved fate, some of whom we will see in later paintings. Before us we see the foreshortened body of Eulalia which in itself often received criticism from critics of the time. As we look along the body from her head to her feet, our eyes are led  to a void of snow which in a way underlines the young girls isolation. Her arms are outstretched forming a cross as if she has been taken down from a crucifixion and laid upon the floor which, of course, mirrors the fate of Christ. Hovering above her are white doves, one of which in the story of her martyrdom is said to have come from the dead girl’s mouth on its journey to heaven. This frightened away the soldiers from her body and allowed a miraculous snow to cover her nakedness, its whiteness indicating her sainthood. Look how Waterhouse has depicted Eulalia’s hair spread out like a fan. For Waterhouse, a woman’s hair was an object of male attraction. Although the painting shocked many who saw it at the 1885 Royal Academy Exhibition it secured Waterhouses election as a full member of the Academy. For all the painting recounts the martyrdom of a young virgin, Waterhouse was careful not to depict on her body the result of the savagery and butchery of her torture that preceded her death, instead he managed to secure the purity and innocence of her body.

Mariamne by John William Waterhouse (1887)

Waterhouse’s fascination with doomed women can be seen in his 1887 painting entitled Mariamne. The story comes from an account in Josephus’ book Jewish Antiquities. Josephus was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem. In his book, Josephus recounts the story of Mariamne the Hasmonean, who he describes as a magnificently beautiful and dignified Hasmonean princess and the second wife of Herod the Great and sister-in-law of Salome. Herod feared the power of the Hasmoneans which led him to execute all the leading Hasmonean family members, including his wife, Mariamne, whom Herod had executed at the behest of sister Salome on a trumped-up charge of infidelity. The painting by Waterhouse was the largest he ever made, measuring 259 x 180cms. It is a wonderful painting full of fascinating narratives. Art critics of the time likened it to a scene from a play. The main figure of the work is the white-robed figure of Marianme who we see descending a marble staircase. Her hands are chained having been condemned to death by a group of elders seen lurking in the shadows in the background. Their decision being based on their loyalty to their king and not because they believed the charge of infidelity. To the right we see a man in crimson robes seated, listening intently to the whisperings of the women by his side. There is one line of thought that the interior painted by Waterhouse is reminiscent of the interior of his contemporary, Alma-Tadema’s Grove End Road, St John’s Wood studio/house. The painting was exhibited in Paris, Chicago and Brussels over the next ten years and by the beginning of the twentieth century Waterhouse had become world renowned.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888)

Another of Waterhouse’s works featuring a doomed and maligned female is probably his best known. It is The Lady of Shalott which he completed in 1888. The Lady of Shalott is a character from Tennyson’s 1832 poem and recounts the story of a woman who is suffering under a curse of isolation. The woman’s home is a tower on a lonely island called Shalott. Running down past the island is a river which emanates from the castle of King Arthur’s and wends its way down to the town of Camelot. She had been incarcerated in her room, under a curse that barred her to go outside or even look directly out of the window in the tower. The curse forbids her to see the world other than that reflected images in her mirror.

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

 She would spend her time sitting below the mirror weaving a tapestry of scenes that she could only observe in the reflection of the mirror. One day she looks into the mirror and catches a glimpse of the reflected image of the handsome knight Lancelot.

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.

She is overwhelmed by his beauty and cannot resist looking at him directly. She is stricken by love and lust and turns to look out of her window. For her disobedient act the mirror cracks and she is cursed.

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 lady leaves the tower and goes to the riverbank where she finds a boat. It is this point in the tale that is captured by Waterhouse’s painting. The lady is just about to slip the chain holding the boat to the shore. We see the lady in the boat, sitting on the tapestry she has just been weaving. There is a pensive air about her facial expression. She seems slightly fearful as she starts her journey. Her lips are parted as she sings, maybe to ward off her anxiety as she leaves the island and floats down the river towards Camelot.

And down the rivers dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
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.

At the front of the boat is a lantern and a crucifix. Besides the crucifix we see three candles. Candles symbolise life, and in this painting, we see two have blown out and one is flickering in the strong breeze, signifying that the lady has little time left. This is not just the starting point of the journey. It is almost her last moments before she dies never having reached Camelot.  Look at the sumptuous colours Waterhouse has used in the painting contrasting the stark white of her clothing. The painting was further enhanced by Waterhouse’s inclusion of naturalistic details such as the pied flycatcher which rests on the reed bed and the many water plants which were native to English rivers at the time.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1894)

Waterhouse completed two further paintings with the motif of The Lady of Shalott. The one he painted in 1894 is part of the Leeds Art Gallery collection. In this work Waterhouse captures the moment as the lady turns and rises from her chair, clutching her weaving shuttle, hesitating before the sight of Lancelot as the curse begins to take place and the mirror starts to crack. The tip of Lancelot’s lance points to the crack. Behind her we see the cracked mirror and the reflection of the knight. Look at her facial expression. It is a piercing gaze. It is a combination of anxiety and yearning, a yearning to free herself from captivity. It is an act of defiance on her part. It is her assertion that she should be free. For Tennyson the poem was an allegorical tale about the transition from innocence, repression to sexual revelation. Look how the golden thread used in her weaving has wrapped around her torso and how she is breaking free of its restraints as if she is a white moth emerging from its silk cocoon, which metaphorically is her sexual awakening following her catching sight of the famous knight. Behind her, in the right background of the work Waterhouse has once again depicted candles being extinguished by the wind signifying the coming of her death.

I am Half Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1915)

Waterhouse’s final version of the Lady of Shalott was painted in 1915 entitled I am Half Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott. This is the point in the poem before Lancelot appears as a reflection in her mirror. It is from this stanza that the painting gets its sub-title:

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.

Again, we see the lady in solitary confinement in her tower. She is stretching upwards with her hands behind her head in a rather sensual pose. She is thinking about love and contemplating her dash for freedom. In preliminary sketches for this painting, Waterhouse had portrayed the lady sitting exasperatingly slumped in the chair with her hand covering her face. In front of her is her loom and to her left we see her large mirror.

It is important to look carefully at the mirror to see how Waterhouse has carefully chosen what is reflected in it. It reflects the arches of the tower’s windows creating a “heart” shape which symbolises what the lady dreams of – love and to be loved. But, like the mirror itself, this will soon be shattered. The river is reflected in the mirror reminding us that this is the ladies escape route. Camelot is also reflected in the mirror. This is where Sir Lancelot rides to and from. The reflection at the bottom of the mirror is of the two young lovers. There is a look of frustration on the lady’s face, no longer satisfied by her weaving. Frustrated by her lack of freedom. The sight of the two lovers in the mirror is frustrating her.  She realises she must escape captivity and does not fear the consequences.

Waterhouse had been fascinated by Tennyson’s poem for almost thirty years and these three paintings are testament to him wanting to delve into the meaning of the work and express it pictorially.

..………………..to be continued.