JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite at the Royal Academy of Arts

By Rachel Hayward | 25 June 2009
Showing a young man from Greek myths being pulled into a pool by beautiful nymphs

(Above) JW Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896). Picture © Manchester City Galleries

Exhibition: JW Waterhouse – The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until September 13 2009.

The JW Waterhouse retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts is a must-see show for the Pre-Raphaelite fan. The name Waterhouse might not be as recognisable as Rossetti or Holman Hunt, but the works of art from this follower of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood certainly will be.

Crowd-pleasers such as The Lady of Shalott, which is Tate Britain's best-selling postcard, take leading roles in the theatre of Waterhouse. There is no doubt that this artist, who compelled the Royal Academy with his grand scenes inspired by Classical Antiquity while still in his 20s, was the consummate showman.

Showing a naked girl lying dead on the snow

JW Waterhouse, St Eulalia (1885). Picture © Tate, London

When Waterhouse burst onto the 19th century art scene in 1874, it was already two decades after the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Waterhouse was never an official member of the Brotherhood, but the art of the PRB clearly inspired and influenced him, not least in its literary emphasis.

However, the fashion that Waterhouse first tapped into was for large scale academic history paintings, especially those inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome.

This being Victorian England, the Classical taste involved the kind of safe, fantasy images of the leisured classes of Greece and Rome, the stock in trade of artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Nudes were also allowed, but Waterhouse was prepared to go further and shock his audience with obscure references and daring compositions.

What Victorian, for example, had heard of the Spanish Saint Eulalia, who was martyred for refusing to worship pagan Roman gods?

Dramatically foreshortened, Eulalia's Christ-like pose confronts the viewer with its radical and experimental use of space. Contemporaries admired the manner in which Waterhouse avoided the gory aspects of Eulalia's crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

There is neither mutilation nor blood, but Waterhouse uses symbolism for all it's worth. Eulalia's long, sensous hair flows from her head in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelite beauties. Her long tresses symbolise the escape of her life-blood as do the loose red drapes covering the lower half of her body.

But the saint is hardly given the traditional "soft porn" treatment of the establishment painter. Instead, our eyes are assaulted by what is a dead, half-naked 12-year-old girl whose womanly form is thrust into our faces.

So it's hardly the raw, social realism of Pre-Raphaelite founder member John Everett Millais, then. Millais' recent retrospective at Tate conveyed how the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had indeed railed against the tired academic conventions of Classicism and revitalised contemporary art, full of shocking realism in works such as Christ in the Carpenter's Shop, 1850.

Showing a mermaid on the shore holding her long hair

A sensual and intoxicating beauty to delight and unnerve the Victorian male. JW Waterhouse, A Mermaid (1900). Picture © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Nevertheless, Waterhouse enjoyed fame and success with his work and sealed his position as Royal Academician with A Mermaid.

The artist was clearly fascinated by the power of the female form to symbolise good or evil. Other key works of the 1880s on display move away from the virginal figure of Eulalia to his 1896 Hylas and the Nymphs. Here, Waterhouse presents the story at its most dramatic.

The viewer is given the split-second moment before Hylas' watery death as the enthralled youth is clearly on the cusp of falling into the pool to join the mesmerising circle of nymphs who await him. The juxtaposition of their innocence and overt sensuality is striking. Man is depicted as hopelessly vulnerable when subjected to the hypnotising effects of women.

Showing evil woman with dark robes holding poison in a bowl

Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea illustrates Waterhouse's interest in powerful women with ambiguous and, in Circe's case, evil intentions. JW Waterhouse. Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea, 1892. Courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia

This rich exhibition also features Waterhouse's exotic middle-eastern beauties who satisfied the craze for the occult and Orientalism at the time.

There are also the terrifying female harpy birds in Ulysses and the Sirens (1891). These women are not for the faint-hearted and reflect a pervading fear of women at the time. Freud would indeed have had a field day with Waterhouse's art.

Showing woman with long hair in boat

JW Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott (1888). Picture © Tate, London

In art ,as well as in life, the Victorians often punished women for their sexuality. Waterhouse's 1888 painting, The Lady of Shalott, and its inspiration, the poem of the same name by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92), have been read as allegories of sexual longing.

Typically, Waterhouse opts for high dramatic effect and shows the maiden in the last gasps of life. Her curse? She has looked out of her tower prison to gaze upon the virile and dashing knight, Sir Launcelot.

The crucifix on the Lady of Shalott's boat emphasises her self-sacrifice for love, the final candle about to be blown out by the breeze of death. Note the Medieval subject matter, undoubtedly Pre-Raphaelite in nature. It is also known that Waterhouse was influenced by Millais' Ophelia of 1851-2.

His painting technique is, however, thoroughly modern. Broad brushstrokes for the foreground and landscape not only emulate the French Impressionists but also prefigure 20th century Abstraction.

"My belief," says Tate Curator of Modern British Art, Robert Upstone, "is that Waterhouse was trying to bring together the two fighting factions of the Academy and the new French art."

Showing woman with long dark hair and wearing long pink dress

JW Waterhouse, Windflowers (1902). Private Collection

In the 20th century, Waterhouse was seen as passé, particularly by post-Impressionist followers such as art critic Roger Fry. The romantic, flowery beauties Waterhouse produced did not sit well with a 20th century art which had cut itself free from representation.

This led to the artist languishing in relative obscurity after his death, before hitting the headlines again in 2000 when the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation acquired St Cecilia for £6.6million. The work remains the highest price ever paid for a Victorian painting, taking a leading role in this sumptuous retrospective.

Showing sleeping woman and two kneeling angels playing instruments

J.W. Waterhouse, St Cecilia (1895). Picture courtesy Christie's, © Christie's Images Ltd / Ian Bavington Jones, London

Like many of his works, the painting – completed when Waterhouse was at his peak – is instantly recognisable.

The Patron Saint of music is serenaded by angels and the choice of subject owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse found inspiration in Pre-Raphaelite (1833-1898) Edward Coley Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series and the work of contemporary Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, so beloved of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Pre-Raphaelites sought to capture in paint Tennyson's poetic retellings of ancient myth and legend, particularly doomed young maidens such as St Cecilia.

Tennyson's The Palace of Art contains the lines:

In a clear wall'd city on the sea,
Near gilded organ pipes, her hair
Wound with white roses, slept St Cecily;
An angel looked at her.

There is the typical Pre-Raphaelite obsession with symbolic detail. Waterhouse has the emblem of death, the poppy flower growing at St Cecilia's feet in the garden. It is an uncompromising warning to the viewer of the Saint's impending martyrdom.

The critical art establishment of the early 20th century may have dismissed Waterhouse but, through this masterly retrospective, the Royal Academy will not only encourage a huge revival of interest in the artist but also a reappraisal of his art.

Detailed information on the show can be found at the Royal Academy online.

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