Thursday, July 05, 2007

Art Blogging: John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter. He was born in Rome to an English family which returned to London during his childhood. Waterhouse was educated at the Royal Academy and rose to prominence during the 1880s. He was particularly noted for his depictions of either tragic or dangerous women. Waterhouse painted extensively from Medieval literature and Classical mythology, as well as profited from portrait commissions. His subject matter was therefore heavily Pre-Raphaelite, but Waterhouse (unlike, for example, Burne-Jones and Rossetti) was willing to make use of traditional Academic styles.

The Lady of Shallot (oil on canvas, 1888, at the Tate). This is Waterhouse's most famous work. It is a reference to a romantic figure in English literature. Elaine of Astolat first appeared in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur as a woman cursed to fall in love with Sir Lancelot, whose heart belonged entirely to Queen Guinevere. During Waterhouse's time, Tennyson had revived interest in the legend with a poem in which Elaine had been cursed by a fairy with this overwhelming love for Lancelot, and she then tries desperately to reach Camelot in a boat:

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining.
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's 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.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' the noises of the night,
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy (oil on canvas, 1893, at the Landesmuseum, Darmstadt). It is a reference to a Medieval European legend about a knight who encountered a strange but beautiful woman in the forest. She seduced and then killed him. The legend first appeared in a 15th Century poem, and again by Keats in a 1820 poem:

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.


Michael said...

Just awesome. Though I cannot say I truly appreciate art for art's sake, there is some that leaves me speechless.

John said...

The Pre-Raphaelites truly rocked.