Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

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John William Waterhouse


, Victorian Romanticist painter and draftsman

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

109.2 x 81.3 cms | 43 x 32 ins
Oil on canvas

Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross

| United States

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