Sunday, 9 August 2009

J.W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

While we were in London, we read the Financial Times every morning and that’s where I saw the notice for the exhibition of paintings by J.W. Waterhouse at the Royal Academy of Arts. It illustrated the painting A Mermaid, which is owned by the Royal Academy, and talked about the artist’s focus on painting young women, from martyrs to femmes fatales. While I had seen his painting of The Lady of Shalott at the Tate, I really was not familiar with his art, and there are very few paintings by him in the United States. There are at least two comprehensive websites (one and another) devoted to his work, however, and Waterhouse posters are apparently quite common in England. Nonetheless, seeing the works in person - monumental, richly colored, and painted with skill - made me think more seriously about this artist than I would have based on the recent critical response to his work.

Waterhouse was born in 1849, the year of the birth of the pre-Raphaelite movement. He died in 1917, an anachronism in the midst of cubists, fauves, and Dada. It is not at all surprising that his reputation rapidly declined and probably not surprising that his work is now collected by Andrew Lloyd Webber, somewhat as Waterhouse’s older contemporary Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was collected and his reputation somewhat revived by Allen Funt in the 1960s.

The exhibition includes a range of Waterhouse’s paintings, enough to give a viewer a substantial sampling of his career, but not enough to demonstrate what is widely agreed was his later focus on single images of women who, whether martyrs or temptresses, project sexual undertones. I kind of expected an exhibition of girly pictures, so was very impressed at the ambition and seriousness of Waterhouse’s work. I was surprised at his impressive painting technique, richly varied palettes, relatively obscure classical and Christian subjects, and varieties of compositional types, all within a characteristically dramatic commitment to idealized realism, if you can call it that. I did also notice how British his women’s faces are.

The Lady of Shalott is Waterhouse’s most famous painting, probably because it can usually be seen at the Tate Britain (one of the reviews of the show said that its postcard is the most popular one at the Tate Britain, which could just indicate that they don’t have postcards of enough of the works in their collection). The subject was a popular one in the 19th century, taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. She lived in a tower and was not permitted to experience the outside world directly; she could only look outside through a mirror, and she spent her days weaving. One day Sir Lancelot rode by her window and seeing him determined her that she would leave her tower, even though she knew she was cursed and leaving would result in her death. She got a boat, painted her name on the side, and rode it down the river to Camelot. She died as the boat arrived and in the last stanza Lancelot saw her and commented that she was pretty.

Several of the works refer to Homer’s Odyssey and its stories of Ulysses returning to Greece after the Trojan Wars. Two of the most dramatic are Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses and another of Ulysses and the Sirens, both scenes of temptation dramatically staged. Another image of Circe, Circe Invidiosa/Circe Poisoning the Sea , in which the intense blues are almost iridescent, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Circe, jealous of the nymph Scylla, poisons the water in which she bathes. Scylla becomes so ugly that she throws herself into the sea, becoming a dangerous rock between Italy and Sicily.

Among the images of saints were a monumental painting of the teen-aged Saint Eulalia of Merida, Spain, martyred and lying in the snow surrounded by doves, and the lovely patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia, sleeping with an illuminated book on her lap, serenaded by angels in front of a distant seascape. While these are indeed images of women, their complex histories and monumentality attest to the seriousness of Waterhouse’s enterprise, whatever his subsequent reputation.

Toward the end of the exhibition was one of Waterhouse’s last paintings, of Tristan and Isolde, which I imagined was inspired by Wagner’s opera, but may have been a response to the original medieval legend or to the version of the story in Thomas Malory’s Le Mort d’Arthur of ca. 1469. In any event, it led me to reflect on how the protagonists fall in love as the result of drinking a magic potion and the difficulties and sad end that result, all the while admiring her rich drapery and his reflective armor.

Waterhouse’s paintings have been compared to Alma-Tadema’s, another late Victorian painter. Although the multiple later images of women lost in thought suggest that Waterhouse found a market in that genre, his paintings generally seem to me to be more seriously grounded in specific tales from history, myth, religion and drama than do Alma-Tadema’s toga-party gatherings. He expected them to call one’s attention to these stories and their morals, and his work may deserve the renewed study given by scholars to other representational/romantic/ history painters of the 19th century. I enjoyed the exhibition a lot, was inspired by it to think about the way paintings relate to history, and to spend quite a while wandering around the Web looking for information about the artist and his subjects.

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