A Master Artist
J.W. Waterhouse was a master artist. What makes an artist a "master" is all relative depending on whom you ask, what type of art you are studying, what era you are looking at, etc. I personally believe that Waterhouse was a master artist. His art shows skill, it connects to its audience, it shows a knowledge of his subject, and it is both thought-provoking and aesthetically pleasing. I've taken two art history classes and studied artists of both olden and modern times. Nevertheless, I do not think I am fit to discuss what makes a master artist in depth, nor am I fit to analyze Waterhouse a lot; I respect him too much to doubt him. I am merely a big fan of his.
There is a lot to think about when you look at Waterhouse's work. For example, what makes a piece "Waterhouse"? What makes a particular woman "a Waterhouse woman"? Was Waterhouse a Pre-Raphaelite painter or more Neo-Classicist? What attracted Waterhouse to painting Greek mythology and Arthurian legend?
I do not presume to answer these questions. Rather, I will present in this lens a basic study of Waterhouse, his work, and why I find it so grand. I leave it up to you to decide and to research the answers to the above questions. I also offer a list of sources that tackle these questions in my Guestbook below. But I encourage you to research for yourself. The answers may vary.
Who and What He Painted - A Brief List For the Curious
Waterhouse was known for primarily painting subjects of Greek mythology and Arthurian legend. He painted landscapes, people, stories from mythology and real people. Here are some of the people and places Waterhouse painted:
THE LADY OF SHALOTT
This series of paintings by Waterhouse was based on a Victorian ballad written by English poet Alfred, Lord Tennsyon. This poem was based loosely on medieval legend, and tells of Elaine, the Lady of Shalott. A mysterious noble lady, she stays forever in her tower, cursed to remain there and weave a magic web by the help of a mirror. She is prohibited from looking outside. One day, King Arthur's most famed and handsome knight, Sir Lancelot, passes by Shalott's tower. Elaine looks out her window and sees him, and promptly falls in love. She struggles with herself and then decides to pursue him. Leaving her tower, she takes a boat out to Camelot, but dies before she arrives.
In the legend of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche, a very beautiful human girl, is envied by the goddess Venus. Venus asks her son Cupid to shoot Psyche with his arrow and make her fall in love with someone hideous. Cupid goes to follow this order and Psyche wakens before he can do it, causing him to scratch himself with his own arrow and thus fall in love with her. Venus curses Psyche to have no husband, so her parents leave her on a mountain top for the gods. Cupid becomes her lover but insists she not see him, never lighting lamps. Psyche goes searching for her love. After advice to go to Venus, she does so, and succeeds in a number of difficult tasks meant to kill her. Finally she opens a box owned by Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld, which is said to have beauty inside of it. Instead it has eternal sleep, which Cupid saves her from, and then he asks Zeus to give her the drink of immortality. Psyche becomes immortal and Venus and Psyche begrudgingly make up.
Waterhouse portrays one siren. The Sirens in Greek mythology are a group of mythical creatures in beautiful female bodies who seduce sailors and then drown them in the ocean. In "The Siren", we see a young man struggling in the water, even as Waterhouse's Siren, a beautiful nude woman holding a harp, watches.
Waterhouse also painted the sorrowful Ophelia, a female character in Shakespeare's famous play "Hamlet". After being persuaded of Hamlet's danger to her by her father and brother, Ophelia has a couple encounters with Hamlet in which she is sure he is insane. After her father's death she goes mad, singing songs, speaking in riddles, and handing out flowers. In the final scene in which Ophelia is mentioned, Queen Gertrude reports in a monologue how Ophelia climbed a willow tree and a branch broke, dropping her into a river, where she drowned.
Other famous subjects that Waterhouse has painted include Cleopatra, famous ruler of Egypt, Pandora and the fateful box, dryads and nymphs (female spirits of trees and water), and several scenes from Odysseus, such as "Penelope and the Suitors" and "Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus."
All in all there are a lot of paintings with focuses on Greek mythology, women, tragedy, love, forbidden or tragic love, and mystical creatures. Waterhouse has also painted Biblical and historical figures, such as Mariamne in the court of Herod, and Emperor Nero.
Amazon likes J.W. Waterhouse!
Waterhouse's famous depiction of Shakespeare's "Ophelia"
Classic depiction of The Lady of Shalott
Studies and Famous Work of WaterhouseClick thumbnail to view full-size
Duel and Debate
Question: Do you think there is a formula for what makes "good" art, or is it all relative?
Would you say older or newer art is "better", and why?
Do you think wrapping toilet paper around a tree constitutes art, or not?
What makes good art?
"Gathering Almond Blossoms"
Why I love J.W. Waterhouse
It is hard for me to put into words why I love Waterhouse.
I think what first attracted me to his art was the content he chose to paint. I have been fascinated by Arthurian legend for a long time, and I noticed that Waterhouse had many paintings depicting scenes from stories of King Arthur. Not only did Waterhouse depict common Arthurian subjects such as Morgan le Fay and Queen Guinevere, but he also depicted little-known subjects such as Elaine. Elaine is the focus of a few very famous Waterhouse paintings, about "The Lady of Shalott", based on the famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Another reason I fell in love with Waterhouse is because of the moods he evokes in his paintings. When I look at a Waterhouse work, I become absorbed in the feelings and events of the painting. In "Gathering Almond Blossoms", above, a child and a woman pick almond blossoms. It is a simple, ordinary scene quite different than many of Waterhouse's more mystical pieces. But in this simplicity, there is so much - love, and human connection, and parenthood, and childhood, and all that those things imply. We wonder what it means to the subjects, who they were, and we also have certain emotions the painting evokes depending on who we are. Just from one painting, there is so much depth of feeling. Waterhouse's great skill in depicting humanity - whether in an ordinary scene like in "Gathering Almond Blossoms", or whether mystical like "The Siren" - shows in every single one of his works.
Besides all of this, Waterhouse's work is just beautiful. He shows a great attention to realism in each of his works, even those that are of fantastical, mythical creatures and people. There is subtlety in his choice of color. He pays a lot of attention to shadow and the play of light, which we see in pieces such as the Shalott series, "Sleep and His Half Brother Death", and others.
What has also caught my attention in much of Waterhouse's work are the faces. Many of the women in his works seem to have similar features - a wide forehead, defined brow ridge, long pointed nose, rounded chin, long thick hair, and a full, innocent mouth. His women are very feminine, whether they are damsels in distress or Cleopatra. They all have a feminine grace and delicacy to how they hold themselves, and in their curving bodies and wide eyes, they are beautiful in a very feminine way.
Furthermore, it seems that Waterhouse can paint anything. He paints water, trees, cloth, faces, flesh, all with equal amount of attention and skill. Whether the dark trees seen in the background of the famous "La Belle Dam Sans Merci" or the ripples in the water in "Phyllas and the Nymphs", each part is done with care. You can feel the cold shade of the trees and the smooth movement of the water. In looking at the gathered cloth of the blue dress Ophelia wears in one of Waterhouse's Ophelia paintings, I feel like I can reach in and grab that cloth. The long red hair of the dangerous "Lamia" (1909 version) seems like it is just about to fall from her hands as she admires herself in a pool of water.
When I look at Waterhouse, I am in the painting, engrossed in its moods and textures and realities, and the way he paints each item makes it feel real.
These are just a few reasons why I love Waterhouse. I can't explain them all; I don't think I even -know- all the reasons why I love Waterhouse.
Photo GalleryClick thumbnail to view full-size
What do you think of J.W. Waterhouse's art?
Commentary On Waterhouse
What do other people think of the work of Waterhouse?
Here are reviews and comments on the work of John William Waterhouse:
"Waterhouse was among that most rare class of artists ~ those successful in their own lifetime. He did extremely well commercially, and excelled artistically. When his subject matter began to shift from the classical, Royal Academy-approved themes to those of the Pre-Raphaelites, interest followed. When the notable Henry Tate snapped up The Lady of Shalott in 1888, Waterhouse's career was truly on the ascent. This period (up to the turn of the century) was the most successful of his career, and featured subjects that were largely female, tragic and haunting, e.g. his Ophelia series.
For most of his latter years, his work focused on characters/ myths such as DanaÃ¯des, Persephone, Daphne, Narcissus and various other figures from literature and mythology. There is much mystery surrounding the identities of Waterhouse's models for the more iconic paintings; yet there is some evidence in surviving letters that Mary Lloyd (the famed subject in contemporary Frederic Leighton's "Flaming June" sat for Waterhouse. He kept his private life private, and there is little or no mention of any temperamental idiosyncrasies, alcoholism or a passion for ladies other than his wife, Esther."
- by hardybear, an online commentator
"Waterhouse continued to be the painter of Victorian sentiment and deceitful sexuality."
"Was he in any way original? That so many are content to attach him to the coat-tails of Millais and Rossetti suggests that he was not - even the RA in its new exhibition uses the subtitle "The Modern Pre-Raphaelite" to describe him - but I am inclined to suggest that it was Alma-Tadema, a leading Olympian of his day, whom Waterhouse followed rather then any member of the PRB [Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood]."
"Miranda" from Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
"Floral symbolism was appropriated by Waterhouse as a method to further enhance the profoundly theatrical qualities of his work. It reveals a strong relationship between the Victorian values that are seemingly infused within his art, as well as the personal concerns of the artist that transpire through his application of allegory."
"With their compelling composition and glowing colour, these works are admired for their beauty and for their power to transport the viewer into a romantic world of myth and legend. At the same time, Waterhouse's wistful heroines also reflect the troubled attitudes of nineteenth-century male artists towards women."
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book on J.W. Waterhouse
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My Final Words on Waterhouse
Gone, But Not Forgotten (also the title of the painting below)
There are a lot more things I could address in this lens. I could go into a long discussion of J.W. Waterhouse and his art, his life, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Waterhouse's influences and whom he influenced, etc. Instead I have chosen to make this a little appreciation lens for Waterhouse. He is a favorite artist of mine, and I wanted to share him with you. I want those who don't know of him to learn of him, and perhaps those of you who are already familiar with Waterhouse have learned something new. All I can hope for is that you, whoever you are, got something out of this lens.
Please spread the Waterhouse love! Tell people about him, show his work, and please point them to this lens. Go look up more of his art, too; there are tons of paintings I could not include on here, and there is a lot more commentary on his work. Enjoy!
Sources used for this lens (on commentary section):