John William Waterhouse – the last great Pre-Raphaelite artist

John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott

The image above is called The Lady of Shalott and is actually the second painting I’ve seen by John William Waterhouse. The first? La Belle Dame Sans Merci. I included that one a little bit further down. That’s the one with the lady in a dress with a knight in armor. Remember how romantic chivalry used to be?

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. Actually, still do every once in a blue moon. But in high school, I was really into it.

The Pre-Raphaelites heavily influenced Tolkien who in turn influenced everyone from Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons to pretty much every Heavy Metal band in existence. So if you’re wondering who started the whole fantasy genre, well, too many to list. But you have to give a lot of credit to the Pre-Raphaelites. They romanticized both the fantasy genre and the medieval era.

John William Waterhouse was the last great Pre-Raphaelite

Waterhouse wasn’t the absolute last artist to carry on the Pre-Raphaelite tradition. He was just the last great one. His artwork is now in the millions of British pounds per piece. I know this since I’ve actually looked for it. I’d love to own one of his pieces, even a sketch.

It’s funny because Waterhouse didn’t even start off a Pre-Raphaelite. He actually started off an Academic painter.

I’m going to completely skip over his Academic part of his career. I’m only going to focus on after he made the change to a Pre-Raphaelite style artist.

Circe Offering The Cup to Odysseus (1891)

Circe Offering The Cup to Odysseus (1891)

What differentiates the two styles?

Note that Waterhouse wasn’t one of the original Pre-Raphaelites. Those artists originally created the style in revolt of Mannerism. They believed that art was great up until Mannerism happened. It’s funny because I believe art was great up until Modernism happened.

At the time, you had critics who loved their style and critics who absolutely hated them. That in itself is pretty good research if you’re interested in learning more. I’ll keep that part short though.

The name “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” came from the great artist Raphael. Note the “pre” as they emphasized before Raphael. They hated Mannerism with a passion.

Their four doctrines were the following:
1. to have genuine ideas to express;
2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
3. to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art,
4. to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Now to them, Classicism wasn’t bad. It was just a different movement, based on the Classical world. The Pre-Raphaelites still picked up some of the characters and themes from Classicism. Which makes the differentiation confusing to the average art lover.

Waterhouse’s style vs the other Pre-Raphaelites

Where Waterhouse differentiates from the others is in his Medievalism. That’s actually the Waterhouse I’ve come to know and love.

For the record, not all the Pre-Raphaelites went that route. Of the group, I favor the Medievalists. Personal taste.

Several of the Pre-Raphaelites did go the Medieval route. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones started that branch. Waterhouse followed in their footsteps a generation later. I happen to love all three of their styles.

Medieval and fantasy characters

This is the John William Waterhouse that made me a fan. The Pre-Raphaelites often had Christian themes. Like I mentioned, some had Medieval themes. And some took a fantasy direction. They didn’t have concrete rules for themes, other than respecting nature, having a solid idea to portray, and being pretty fucking good as an artist. You couldn’t slap the label on if you were a hack.

Waterhouse is my favorite for the direction he took. I love his themes.

I first heard about the Lady of Shalott from Loreena McKennitt, of whom I’m a huge fan. When I saw the painting, I only saw a beautiful redhead as I was a kid. I didn’t know the meaning of it.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the poem based on one of the Arthurian characters. Several of the Pre-Raphaelites were fans of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Another thing I want to mention. Waterhouse is not only not one of the originals Pre-Raphaelites. He’s an entirely new generation adopting that style. He got into the style in the 1880s, long after the originals unofficially dissolved.

Also note that I argue Pre-Raphaelites were a subset of Romanticism. Some art historians agree with me and some don’t. Art historians are always arguing over semantics.

Since they loved nature, revered beauty and awe, and glorified Medievalism, they definitely fit within Romanticism. Those are some of the biggest tenets of Romanticism.

Anyways, let’s look at some of his fantasy characters. If you played any fantasy RPG, you’ll immediately recognize these creatures.

John William Waterhouse - A Naiad (1893)

A Naiad (1893)

The Siren (1900)

The Siren (1900)

John William Waterhouse - A Mermaid (1901)

A Mermaid (1901)

If today, you know the difference between a Naiad, a Siren, and a Mermaid, chances are, you’re a fantasy gamer.

Ophelia

Ophelia is a Shakespearean character and also a recurring character amongst the Pre-Raphaelites. Lizzie Siddal modeled for John Everett Millais back in 1852. Waterhouse painted this character three times.

Ophelia is a tragic heroine who you know is going to die when reading Hamlet. She’s fierce, independent, and quite intelligent, but there’s a sadness to her as we see her fate coming.

Or maybe we don’t. Maybe I’ve read too much into her. Regardless, those of us who love Shakespeare find her one of the more fascinating characters.

Obviously, so did the Pre-Raphaelites. Like I just said, Millais painted her back in 1852 using a lady I’m obsessed with, Lizzie Siddal, as his model. Dante Gabriel Rossetti used Ophelia as a subject for his art as well. A generation later, so did Waterhouse.

I liked all three of Waterhouse’s Ophelia paintings, but prefer his second for her beauty and the third for her emotion. The third, she looks like she’s about to lose it. Let me know which one you prefer.

John William Waterhouse - Ophelia (1889)

John William Waterhouse – Ophelia (1889)

John William Waterhouse - Ophelia (1894)

John William Waterhouse – Ophelia (1894)

John William Waterhouse - Ophelia (1910)

John William Waterhouse – Ophelia (1910)

Time frame

John William Waterhouse was born in 1849, when the Pre-Raphaelites barely started. So keep in mind, he adopted the style a generation after. He was far from one of the originals.

In fact, Waterhouse didn’t even paint in this style until the 1880s. So he was a Pre-Raphaelite from the 1880s until his death in 1917.

The Lady of Shalott

Do you know the story of the Lady of Shalott? It’s one of Loreena McKennitt’s most epic songs from her album The Visit, one of my favorites of hers.

The Lady of Shalott’s an Arthurian character, created by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1832. Some of the Pre-Raphaelites were big fans of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry.

Anyways, she’s a young noble woman imprisoned in a tower, another tragic character. She also dies tragically.

She’s told that if she gazes at Sir Lancelot, she’d be cursed. Some claim it’s a metaphor for suicide. Some say she’s defiant.

The poem explicitly states that she knows not what the curse may be. So I’m not sure where people get the suicide claim from.

Towards the end of the poem, she takes off in a boat towards Lancelot after seeing how beautiful he is. She of course dies on the route, but not before Lancelot and others see just how beautiful she herself is.

Waterhouse obviously saw her as a great tragic character to paint as he painted her three times. The featured image (the top image of this article) is the most famous of the three. He also did these two of her.

The Lady of Shallot Looking at Lancelot

The Lady of Shallot Looking at Lancelot (1894)

I am half sick of shadows" said the Lady of Shalott

I am half sick of shadows” said the Lady of Shalott (1915)

Hylas and the Nymphs and 2018 British Censorship

In January 2018, the Manchester Art Gallery removed this gorgeous painting because it was offensive. Think about this for a second. You know how the Victorians were supposed to be sexually oppressed? Yet, what is normal to them is now offensive by today’s standards? Talk about sexually oppressed!

I initially wrote up a long rant about this. However, it was so offensive that I decided to remove it. I value freedom and beauty above all else and have an absolute hatred of those who would attempt to ban either. We’ll just keep it at that.

John William Waterhouse - Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

About

Roman is an artist, composer, writer, and travel junkie, and he can still throw a football

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