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J. W. Waterhouse: not very creative, yet with some great contribution

Updated on November 13, 2014
"The Charmer", by J. W. Waterhouse
"The Charmer", by J. W. Waterhouse | Source

J. W. Waterhouse is not only perhaps my favorite artist, he is one of the most popular painters on the internet. Yet, his paintings are (I confess I don't care) among what could be considered kitsch, at least in our time. Not really an original artist, his art consists entirely (excepting his early work, even less creative) of Pre-Raphaelite themes in a more modern, neoclassical style. His subjects are the same old ones, explored over and over again: Ophelias, the Lady of Shallot, Lancelot and all the old, tired stuff, perhaps with less emphasis in the moral messages, but still with intrincate symbolism.
Not anything new in the art world (and you won't find Waterhouse in any art history book, besides as a footnote exemplifying the typical belle epoque painting), yet his paintings are somewhat alluring, not to say magical, with a smooth, ethereal beauty.

Waterhouse was able to combine in one painting the depht and richness of color of
glazing, and the visible, free and soothing brushstrokes of the Impressionists. The first time I saw his paintings, what immediately came to my mind were the long-forgotten dreams I had as a little girl, all in a same place, with the beauty of a fairytale mixed with the feathery brushstrokes and pretty girls with ruffling dresses from the Impressionists. Sometimes combined with cute, soft-faced knoghts in shining armor (different from the "medieval" stuff with rude guys in dirty rags popular at the time). Like the deepest children's dream, just for adults. I immediately fell in love. In my country we never hear anything about the Pre-Raphaelites, or the Neoclassical painters of the time (they are not important in our art history), so it was an amazing discovery.

"Household Gods" by J. W. Waterhouse
"Household Gods" by J. W. Waterhouse | Source

What is so special about Waterhouse's paintings? First, he explores the same old, yet mythical, archetypical themes from the Pre-Raphaelites. Second, his paintings have a smooth, yet intense, sensual, yet otherwordly quality. Third, he explores something about
womanhood that is long-forgotten. His girls, from the ideal girl of the time, secluded at home in her gardens, with porcelain skin, to the bad girls from mythology, have something mysterious. They are seductive and sensual, yet not vulgar or dirty, in their purity. Even the "bad" girls have something magical and divine - Circe the sorceress says everything. Waterhouse's women are divine, pure, creatures from other world, as they
often were in his time, isolated, that sometimes are led by their very innocence to their fall - like the Lady of Shallot. A deep lesson about morals, repetitive as it is among his paintings.

The Lady Of Shallot

The Lady of Shallot, condemned to a life of seclusion, who was a victim of her own innocence and ended up dying after falling in love.
The Lady of Shallot, condemned to a life of seclusion, who was a victim of her own innocence and ended up dying after falling in love. | Source

The Lady of Shallot was a character from a poem by Tennyson. She was victim of a curse of unknown origin. She was condemned to spend her life locked up in a tower, allowed to look at the outside world trough a mirror. One day, she saw the reflection of Sir Lancelot trough the mirror, and fell in love with him. She then decides to go after him, prepares her funeral boat, and embarks to Camelot. She arrives already dead. Lancelot, who didn't even know she existed, could only comment how the corpse had a lovely face.

Some critics consider Waterhouse's paintings as mere fetishes for depraved, yet repressed Victorian males, dreaming about their secluded muses, which today would appeal only to 16-year olds. They are much more than this.

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