John William Waterhouse’s Ladies

Miranda the Tempest via Sotheby's

Feature image: Miranda the Tempest via Sotheby's

John William Waterhouse’s Ladies

In art history, John William Waterhouse is the leading artist who characterized women in a realm of fantasy during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was an English painter who solely composed oil on canvas paintings, which were part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style and Orientalism. Waterhouse had a fascination with fantasy and mythology. Thus, he heavily focused on specific characters and heroines from Greek Mythology within his art. Unlike other male artists at the time, Waterhouse illustrated women past the mundane world he lived in. Instead, he was known for using real-life models to paint women in Greek mythology and Arthurian legends, his favorite genre types. 

Ophelia, 1894 via Wikipedia
Ophelia, 1894 via Wikipedia

Waterhouse humanized the women from Greek Mythology and Arthurian legends. Based on the heroine’s narratives, he painted them in a position of power or a moment of vulnerability. The women who were in a position of power used their sexuality to gain control of a man. Meanwhile, the women who showed vulnerability were alone, evoking themes of loss and longing when a man of interest was far away and out of reach. Interestingly, the women aren’t weak in Waterhouse’s paintings. Instead, they’re a set up from the mundane world expressing longing, desire, sorrow, and heartbreak. Below are four examples of Waterhouse’s ladies from mythology expressing those themes. 

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shallot, 1888 via Tate Britain
The Lady of Shallot, 1888 via Tate Britain

In 1888, Waterhouse painted The Lady of Shalott, loosely based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1833 poem. According to the original poem, the Lady of Shalott is a cursed woman hidden in a castle outside Camelot. Her story is associated with King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. Her only window to the outside world is looking through a mirror. However, when she sees Lancelot's reflection, she leaves her castle to see him. To get to him, she rides a boat down a river. Tragically, she dies before getting to the other side. Waterhouse’s painting closely follows this narrative by having the Lady of Shalott sitting alone in a boat, looking uncertain and vulnerable, going downstream. The Lady of Shalott is a perfect example of Pre-Raphaelite because Waterhouse depicted French Impressionism. For Pre-Raphaelite, it was a matter of painting “truth to nature,” the Lady of Shalott was in nature front and center. 

Hylahs and Nymphs

Hylas and Nymphs, 1896 via Wikimedia
Hylas and Nymphs, 1896 via Wikimedia

In 1896, Waterhouse painted Hylahs and Nymphs. His work is based on the Greek mythological story of Hylas, the servant of Heracles who gets “abducted” by a group of nymphs. Many sources provide adaptations of the narrative, such as whether Hylahs was abducted or fell in love with the nymphs. Surprisingly, Waterhouse’s painting provides the “male gaze” as he looks directly at the nymph group. Thus, they’re “available” to him. However, the nymphs, who are semi-nude, have power over Hylahs, seducing him and pulling him into the pond. Hylahs being seduced by the nymphs is similar to Waterhouse’s painting Siren, which came out in 1900. It’s a common motif of women, female-based creatures, seducing and hypnotizing men in Waterhouse’s work. Like The Lady of Shalott, the characters in Hylahs and Nymphs are in water – the truth of nature. 

Penelope and the Suitors

Penelope and the Suitors, 1912 via Wikipedia
Penelope and the Suitors, 1912 via Wikipedia

1912 Waterhouse painted Penelope and the Suitors based on Homer’s The Odyssey. Penelope, the title female character and the wife of Odysseus, anxiously waits for her husband to come home from the Trojan War. However, she is tasked with fighting off the advances of suitors. Waterhouse’s painting depicts Penelope, fully clothed, weaving a tapestry. Meanwhile, behind her are the many suitors competing for her. She isn’t interested. According to Dorothy Parker’s essay, “The painting is a visual representation of this perseverance by showing Penelope intently concentrating on weaving the shroud while her suitors try and persuade her with music and gifts. The themes of perseverance, love, and loneliness are prevalent in many author and artist works.” The symbology of Penelope’s weaving signifies her time limit waiting on Odysseus and her power status. With Odysseus gone, she is powerless in her homeland. According to Homer’s original story, Penelope would secretly finish weaving at night and undo the whole thing, starting at the beginning again, allowing more time on her end. Penelope and Suitors isn’t the only painting Waterhouse has done from The Odyssey

Miranda the Tempest

Miranda the Tempest, 1916 via Fine Art America
Miranda the Tempest, 1916 via Fine Art America

The last of Waterhouse’s ladies to discuss is Waterhouse’s Miranda the Tempest in 1916. This oil on canvas painting was done a year before Waterhouse’s death. Based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the painting focuses on Miranda, Shakespeare’s heroine, standing on the seashore watching a shipwreck. Interestingly, like the Lady of Shalott, Miranda has long red hair, and the painting embodies themes of loss and numbness. According to an article from Masterpiece Stories, “In the painting, we can’t see Miranda’s face, yet we can feel her sorrow. Specifically, she holds her hand to her heart to express the pain and despair she is suffering at the loss of life.” Waterhouse’s 1916 Miranda painting is the second one he has completed. He previously did another Miranda painting in 1875. Although both paintings portray the same subject, the main difference is the 1916 painting has the shipwreck in the background, unlike the 1875 painting. Regardless, in both, viewers cannot see Miranda’s face. 

Waterhouse’s ladies were all heroines from Greek mythology and Arthurian legends. His artwork is a contribution to the literature that inspired him. Thus, he provided imagery of famous heroines studied. For Waterhouse’s period, he humanized the women in his paintings, viewing them as beautiful, powerful, and vulnerable.

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