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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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John William
Waterhouse
English painter & draftsman
born 1849- died February 10 1917

Born in: Rome (Lazio, Italy)
Died in: St John's Wood (London, Greater London, England)

Also known as:
Nino, J.W. Waterhouse

Nationality:
English

Associate member of:
The Royal Academy of Art

Full member of:
The Royal Academy of Art


Biographical Information

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome, and was always known by his family, and personal friends as Nino, the diminutive of the Italian Giovanino. Both his parents were artists. Today Waterhouse is among the most popular of all the artists on the ARC web site. It is interesting to note however that little is known about his personal life today, considering he died in 1917, and was an active member of the Roay Academy. What is known indicates he was a retiring, shy man. He left no diaries or journals. His friend, William Logsdail [1859-1944] wrote his memoirs.

Peter Trippi said it best in his book on Waterhouse that "John William Waterhouse is among the most popular Victorian Artists, and many of his paintings have become icons of femininity recognized the world over. With their glowing color, compelling composition and Impressionist-infected technique, these paintings are admired for their beauty, yet at the same time have the power to transport viewers into a romantic world of myth and legend. Waterhouse's art reflects not only his distinctive ideal of female beauty, but also a lifelong fascination with the Romantic and Symbolistic themes of passion, magic and transformation, spiritual, erotic and physical...like other Victorian artists, Waterhouse was neglected through much of the 20th century, but today he is acknowledged as a crucial inheritor of the Pre-Raphaelite legacy."

Waterhouse became ARA in 1885, and a full RA (Royal Academician) in 1895. In 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy at the parish church in Ealing in West London. There were no children. The newly married couple lived in a purpose built artistic colony in Primrose Hill, fellow residents, and close friends were Logsdail, and Maurice Greiffenhagen. The houses had studios. Around 1900 Waterhouse and his wife moved to St John's Wood, evidence of both increasing prosperity, and the need to be part of the artistic community. He was a teacher at the St. John's Wood Art School between 1892 ad 1913. A school which sent more students to the Royal Academy then any other preparatory institution. He was one of the most accomplished British painters of the second half of the 19th century.

Early in his career Waterhouse's work appeared similar to the works of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, but as he continually refined it, and his works became more and more unique and distinctive. Although it was not what he was most known for, he also painted a few excellent portraits of women, some of them being of the members of the Henderson family of Lord Faringdon, of Buscot Park fame. A lot of the pictures spent many years on the walls of prosperous Home Counties families, but the problems of Lloyds of London have, in many cases, forced their sale, just as their real value, and the artistic worth of Waterhouse's achievement has come to be realised.

In 1917 he died of cancer, but he had carried on working virtually to the end of his life, as evidenced by the two very late pictures bought by Lord Leverhume, still on show at the Lady Lever Gallery to this day.

OBITUARY - The Times Monday February 12th 1917.

Mr J. W. Waterhouse RA died at his house in St John's Wood on Saturday, after a long illness in his 68th year.

The first of his paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy was Sleep and his Half-Brother Death, in 1874, and since then there have been few Academies without one or two of his works. He was elected an ARA in 1885 the year of one of his best paintings St Eulalia. The Magic Circle, painted in 1886 which was purchased for the Chantry Bequest Collection, and The Lady of Shallot, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888 were others of his most popular works. He became an RA in 1895.

His painting Hylas and the Nymphs, shown at the Royal Academy in 1897 passed into the collection of the Corporation of Manchester, and by them was lent for Exhibition in Glasgow in 1901, and the Franco-British Exhibition 7 years later. At other loan exhibitions in Whitechapel, Manchester, City of London Guildhall, and Earls Court examples of his work have been on view from time to time. His wife several times exhibited paintings of floral subjects at the Royal Academy.

Mr Waterhouse was an eclectic painter. He painted Pre-Raphaelite pictures in a more modern manner. He was in fact a kind of academic Burne-Jones [1833-1898], like him in his types and moods, but with less insistence on design and more on atmosphere. His art was always agreeable, for he had taste and learning as well as considerable accomplishments; he was one of those painters whose pictures always seem to suggest that he must have done better in some other work. This means that he never quite 'came off,' that he raised expectations in his art that it did not completely satisfy; and a reason for this is to be found in his eclecticism. He never quite found himself or the method which would completely express him. One feels that his figures are there to make a picture rather than they are occupied with any business of their own. They do make it very skillfully, but neither they or the pictures seem quite alive. He was at his best, perhaps, in the Martyrdom of St Eulalia, now in the Tate Gallery which escapes more than usual from the Burne-Jones lethargy, which though very natural and expressive in Burne-Jones himself, seems to be a mere artistic device in Waterhouse. But he was at any rate, quite free from that theatricality which is the common vice of academic and subject painters. He painted always like a scholar and a gentleman, though not like a great artist.

COMMENT

Waterhouse was yet another unhappy artist who had lived into the time of modernism in the early twentieth century, when in the art world the untalented became the fashionable, something, alas, still happening today. Thus newly dead Victorian artists were the subject of further attack in their obituaries. One wonders just what this reviewer would think were he alive today to see the high prices, critical praise, and popularity of the art of John William Waterhouse. On a more general point that it was felt to be intrusive to say virtually anything about the character of the deceased artist, surely one of the main purposes of any obituary.

Source: Victorian Art in Britain.

   Artist Letters

   Books and Related Products About This Artist

The Crystal Ball (Restored Version)

-1902
oil on canvas
Private collection

Listening to His Sweet Pipings

1911
Oil on canvas
68.58 x 109.22 cm
(27" x 43")
Collection of M.S.Rau Antiques (United States)

M.S. Rau Antiques Fine Art Col
Added: 2003-06-22

A woman lies distraught among nature. A mythical pan piper plays to the girl in a vain attempt to comfort her. This painting is a good example of how Waterhouse can capture a sense of self-reflection in a figure's countenance and eyes. The viewer can tell that even though our subject is looking out, she is not looking at anything in particular, just deep in thought with a glazed expression on her face. Other great examples of this can be seen in both his works of Ophelia, one painted in 1894 and the other in 1910 and also 'I am Half Sick of Shadows' another version he did of the Lady of Shallot.
-- Kara Ross

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

Oil on canvas
109.22 x 81.28 cm
(43" x 32")
Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross (United States)

Added: 2002-10-26

Isolde, Princess of Ireland, has been entrusted to the care of Tristram, the nephew of the king of Cornwall, to take her safely to Cornwall to marry the king. However, Tristram loves Isolde himself and Isolde loves him in return. Tristram and Isolde decide to die together rather then be separated and choose to drink a poison. However, unbeknownst to them the poison was switched for a love potion. After they both drink it they fall even more madly in love and run off together into the forest. Tristram (Tristan) and Isolde, is a legend depicted in many Victorian paintings.
        Waterhouse captures the two lovers together on the boat just before drinking the potion, thinking they are about to die. The desperation in Isolde's face can be clearly seen as she clutches the goblet with both hands. In Tristram we see a distinct look of resignation as he accepts it. Waterhouse also points out the separation that has been forced between them. They stand on either side of the painting with the cup and the bottle of potion between them. On Tristram's side lies his helmet and sword with a rope coiled underneath. In the background the castle can be seen illustrating a tie to his duty in bringing Isolde safely to the king. On Isolde's side sits a throne like chair symbolizing her duty to marry the king once she gets there. Also, there is a very distinct line representing a plank which runs between them, directly under the goblet, further emphasizing their separation. As Tristram accepts the cup his foot "steps over the line", foreshadowing that the separation between them is about to end.
        Waterhouse painted a second version of this painting entitled Tristram and Isolde, which has the bottle of potion behind Tristram and less of the castle visible. There is also a crown on Isolde's head and a book which lies open at her feet. The edge of the plank separating the two is even more pronounced with Isolde actually appearing to be slightly elevated.
-- Kara Ross

The Lady of Shalott

1888
Oil on canvas
153 x 200 cm
(60.24" x 78.74")
Tate Gallery (London, United Kingdom)

Added: 2001-09-26

The legend of the Lady of Shalott supposedly takes place during the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The lady is imprisoned in a small castle by a fairy who tells her that if she looks upon Camelot a curse will come upon her, but she does not know what the curse is. In the castle the Lady of Shalott has a mirror in which she can see shadows of what is happening in Camelot. She enjoys weaving the images she sees on a magical loom. One day she sees the knight Lancelot through the mirror and falls madly in love with him. She decides to leave Shalott and take the chance that she will be able to gaze upon his face and enter Camelot. As soon as she steps out of the castle the mirror cracks and she knows the curse has fallen upon her. She runs down to the water, boards a small boat, and heads off towards Camelot, but sadly she dies just before reaching it. Her dead body is found in the boat which floats to Camelot's shore, her name written around its prow. The Lady of Shalott is said to foreshadow the downfall of Camelot. Just as Sir Lancelot was the Lady of Shalott's destruction, his affair with Queen Guinevere leads to the destruction of Camelot.
Waterhouse fully captured the Lady in her crazed, frantic state, desperately trying to reach Camelot, dying as she goes. On the front of the boat surrounded by candles lies a cross, with the image of Jesus nailed to it, symbolizing her willingness to sacrifice her life for love. The tapestry she is sitting on is one she wove on her loom, depicting scenes of Camelot. The two images on the tapestry that can be seen are the Lady of Shalott herself riding toward Camelot in the boat, and sir Lancelot on a horse surrounded by other knights. Waterhouse depicted other images from the legend one in 1894, also entitled The Lady of Shalott, and another one in 1915 entitled "I'm half sick of shadows", whose title was quoted from Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott".

-- Kara Ross

Further references:

Hylas and the Nymphs

1896
Oil on canvas
98 x 163 cm
(38.58" x 64.17")
Manchester City Art Galleries (Manchester, United Kingdom)

Added: 2001-09-26

Hylas and the Nymphs originates from Greek myth. As the legend goes King Hylas was on an expedition when he decided to go ashore to get some water. When he reached into a spring to retrieve it he was carried off by water nymphs, never to be seen again. (encyclopedia.org) Waterhouse portrays King Hylas surrounded by seven nymphs. Enraptured with their beauty he is unaware of the fate about to befall him. This painting has a similar theme to La Belle Dam Sans Mercie. Both paintings depict the Femme Fatale, a common theme in Victorian literature and paintings, where the beauty of a woman causes a man to be off his guard, leading ultimately to his death. Beauty and the sense of immediate danger in both these pieces have grabbed viewers for the last century. Many of Waterhouse's most famous images share the same tie of impending doom. Images including The Lady of Shallot, La Belle Dam Sans Mercie, Ophelia, Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod, Saint Cecilia and Hylas and the Nymphs. "Often in Waterhouse we see a bitter-sweet tension between earthly beauty and impending doom."
-- Kara Ross

La belle dam sans mercie

Translated title: The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy
1893
Oil on canvas
112 x 81 cm
(44.09" x 31.89")
Hessisches Landesmuseum (Darmstadt, Germany)

Added: 2001-09-26

This painting is probably one of Waterhouse's more famous images. Translated in English as 'The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy,' this painting depicts a woman ensnaring a knight in the forest, drawing him towards her with her hair. The knight, totally enraptured by her beauty stares into her eyes hopelessly. As Peter Trippi, world expert on Waterhouse, points out in his catalog rèsumè: "This picture owes its intensity not only to the seductive gaze from the lady's eye, but also the figures' expressive juxtaposition." Trippi also says that La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a result of the "fascination with the hypnotic power of beauty." The title of this piece derives from a poem by Keats first published in 1820, in which a knight is bewitched by a fairy in a meadow, almost costing him his life. (Rèsumè on J.W. Waterhouse) La Belle Dam Sans Mercie is a common theme depicted in many Victorian paintings of a woman using her beauty to entrap men, putting them at great peril. It is truly an amazing work of art.
-- Kara Ross

Further references:

Ophelia

1910
Oil on canvas
102 x 61 cm
(40.16" x 24.02")
Private collection

Added: 2001-09-26

Ophelia sits by the edge of the river tormented by a deep sadness. She is putting flowers in her hair preparing herself for suicide. The story of Ophelia derives from Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Hamlet, Ophelia's love and betrothed, rejects Ophelia and orders her to a nunnery because he is obsessed with revenge against his uncle, who he knows murdered his own father, and married his mother in order to become king. Hamlet's bizarre behavior, which she does not understand, drives Ophelia mad, causing her to throw herself into a river, singing as she drowns. This painting portrays Ophelia and her story beautifully. Waterhouse has truly captured the way she might have looked before her suicide, her gazing out at nothing, entranced in thought, mindlessly placing flowers in her hair, driven crazy from grief. Peter Trippi quoted that "the Art Journal noted her wistful-sad look' and observed that, never can this beautiful creature, troubled with emotion, experience the joys of womanhood'" Hamlet having never actually slept with her. This painting is often compared to John Everett Millais' Ophelia in which she is floating already dead in the water. Millais' Ophelia was painted from 1851-1852.
-- Kara Ross

Saint Cecilia

1895
Oil on canvas
Private collection

Added: 2001-09-26

One of Waterhouse's greatest master pieces is Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music, lying asleep in a chair. Two angels kneel by her side, both playing stringed instruments. The angels as well as Cecelia herself share a look of gentle innocence and vulnerability (which Peter Trippi compares to the Nymphs in much King Hylas and the Water Nymph). The angels look at Cecelia admiringly for her strong faith and lasting virginity. The book in her hand is most likely the holy gospel which the actual saint always carried concealed from her non-Christian family. Saint Cecilia is considered to be one of the Catholic Church's greatest martyrs. She converted many to Christianity which eventually cost her her life. She was ordered to be suffocated by steam, but survived and was found smiling inside the chamber. She was then ordered to be beheaded, but the executioner could not sever her head with the three blows allowed. She supposedly survived for three days, throughout which she was said to be fully coherent and joyful. She finally died after being blessed by the holy Pontiff Urban. (Catholic Encyclopedia) (Magnificat) Saint Cecelia currently holds the world record for a 19th century Victorian or non-Impressionist work, sold at auction, selling in the summer of 2001 for 6.6 million pounds, or roughly 10,000,000 American dollars.
-- Kara Ross

Mariamne Leaving the Judgement Seat of Herod

1887
Oil on canvas
259 x 180 cm
(101.97" x 70.87")
Forbes Magazine Collection (New York, New York, United States)

Added: 2001-09-26

This image is one of Waterhouse's most dramatic paintings. Mariamne was considered to be the favorite of King Herod's ten wives. He supposedly loved her quite dearly, but let false rumours of gross unfaithfulness brought to him by her sister, Salome, hold sway with him. Herod put Mariamne on trial for the crime, and with great despair sentenced her to be executed. (Xenohistorian, Publicbookshelf,) Mariamne is depicted arms bound and fists clenched staring at her husband, Herod, with a look of hurt disbelief. King Herod, unable to bring himself to look at her drops his head to avoid her gaze. Behind her in a semi-circle sits some of the elders, powerful people in Herod's kingdom. Her dress is white symbolizing her purity and innocence of the crime. Peter Trippi, world expert on Waterhouse, in his catalogue rèsumè quoted playwright George Bernard Shaw as noting that Mariamne's descending the stair brings her forward and makes her prominent in the painting, but the stairs turn and lead down under a dark archway, symbolizing her fate. Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod was apart of the famous Forbes collection for over 30 years. It was sold in London over the spring of 2003.
-- Kara Ross

Ulysses and the Sirens

c1891
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia)

Added: 2001-09-26

Ulysses and the Sirens originates from Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. Ulysses, knowing of the sirens' musical way of entrancing sailors to come to them, only so that they can kill them, orders all his men to cover their ears as not to be carried away by the sirens beautiful song. Ulysses himself, wanting to hear, tells his men to tie him to the mast and not to release him no matter what he tells them. When the ship approaches the sirens' island, their song floats across the water. Ulysses is overtaken by it and struggles desperately, begging his men to release him.
        Waterhouse uses this myth to create an inspirational and compelling composition. The Sirens, as birds, flock around the ship singing with there melodic voices, the men gazing at them with awe. Ulysses himself, arms and legs tense, leans towards the mythical creatures with curious longing. The ship itself is beautifully designed with the oars protruding out of lions' heads on the sides, deep rich red sails, and its arching prow. On either side of the ship, the tall mountains force them down their path. Waterhouse painted other images from the Odyssey including Penelope and the Suitors, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, and one entitled simply The Siren.

-- Kara Ross

Further references:
  • An electronic text (etext) version of Homer's The Odyssey.