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Thursday, December 4, 2014

John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalot, 1888, John William Waterhouse, probably his most famous work.
John William Waterhouse Self-portrait,
When I was growing up, about 1958, there was a pop song called Born too Late, sung by a trio of girls from Lyndhurst, Ohio (near Cleveland), who called themselves the Poni Tails. It was one of my favorites. John William Waterhouse is not one of my favorite artists, but insofar as his painting style is concerned, the song (or at least the title) fits him perfectly. Waterhouse was born in 1849, about the time the Pre-Raphaelite painters in England were hitting their stride. He was born in Rome, both of his British parents being painters, though not of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Some twenty-five years later, when Waterhouse was studying at the British Royal Academy of Art and he began to hit his stride, he came to love the Pre-Raphaelites, who were, by then, either dead and buried (or nearly so), and in any case, very much out of fashion. Hence, he was "born too late."

Sleep, and His Half-brother, Death, 1874, John William Waterhouse.

Undine, 1872, John Waterhouse
Waterhouse is often classed with the Pre-Raphaelites, though technically he was not one of them. There was, however, something of a "mutual admiration society" still in place by the time by the time he came along, of which he was very much a part. His earliest known work, titled Undine (left), dates from 1872 and is more Classical or Romantic in its female figure's melodramatic pose and expression than relating in any sense to the Pre-Raphaelites. But, he was only twenty-three at the time and still very much a painting student. Even after he graduated from the Academy he seemed more Bouguereau than Rossetti, although his homoerotic Sleep and His Half-brother, Death, (above) dating from 1874, looks somewhat like a combination of the two. Likewise, Waterhouse's 1877 A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius (below), while academically classical in setting and content has a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite style any of the brotherhood artists would have admired.

A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius, 1877, John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shallot, 1916,
John William Waterhouse.
The Lady of Shallot, 1894,
John William Waterhouse

The Siren, 1900, John Waterhouse
It wasn't until the 1880s that John Waterhouse's latent admiration for the antique Pre-Raphaelite style began to creep into his work, especially notable in his most admired painting, The Lady of Shalott (top), from 1888. It was a subject he would return to twice, first in 1894 with his The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot (above, left), and again in 1916 (above, right) not long before his death from cancer the following year. The subject, it would seem, brought out the Pre-Raphaelite in him as it had, in fact, several other Pre-Raphaelites. The paintings were all based on a Romantic poem of Arthurian legend, The Lady of Shalott, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. However the Pre-Raphaelites, and later Waterhouse, were also fond of erotic Greek gods such as Adonis (bottom), Orpheus, Pandora, Echo and Narcissus (below), as well as Ulysses' sirens (right)--virtually any female literary or mythological figure lending themselves to a socially acceptable excuse for full or partial nudity.

Echo and Narcissus, 1903, John William Waterhouse
The Awakening of Adonis, 1900, John William Waterhouse

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