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.

 

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