When I was at school, I liked English best. Consequently the first time I came across Waterhouse was whilst studying Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott.
The painting was thrust in front of my young eyes as I struggled with the trying verse and of course I had no idea who painted it or when, or anything important, I just remember noticing the desperation on the woman’s face.
Years later, Waterhouse’s distinguishing strokes brought to life more of my literary heroines and helped me to ponder Shakespeare’s angsty, adolescent women whose dilemmas far eclipsed my own teenage heartbreaks. After this I left JW Waterhouse for years, rudely skimming past his name as a student, when I developed a crush on the wayward multitasker, Rossetti, and a fascination with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Yet Waterhouse, I bypassed.
It was my art-history graduate housemate who rekindled my interest and so it was with her that I found myself in the Royal Academy on a Saturday afternoon manoeuvring ourselves around the masses of people, some who were trying to squeeze a quick hour’s worth of culture in to their week, just so they would have something to discuss at dinner parties, and the rest who seemed to be French tourists.
Apparently the French like Waterhouse, which is not unusual when you read how heavily he was influenced by French naturalist techniques. Though he was British, they can claim him as their own and are generous in their visitation and admiration. It was , I admit, preferable and romantic to have continental chatter in the background and not the regional accent of Betty and Jane who may or may not have a tea and scone after and who ‘must remember to ask the nice foreign man at the entrance where the toilets are.’
So, I tried to let Waterhouse wash over me, well as much as you can when the exhibition is organised for you into five sections from Youthful Experiments (1871-1881) to The Final Years (1910-1917). Actually, this was useful for pretenders like myself, as were the pointers which highlighted Waterhouse’s recurring heroines; Circe, Ophelia, Penelope and the Lady of Shalott.
I had my favourites among the exhibited paintings, some obvious, The Lady of Shalott is as breathtaking as expected and others less so, both of Waterhouse’s early pieces titled Dolce Far Niente – sweet doing nothing, seem to me to be what heaven should be.
However, what really struck the inexperienced art critic inside me was Waterhouse’s fascination and obsession with, passion for and terror of, women. Most of his paintings have women as their central characters, but it is the way he paints them which struck me.
Unlike, most painters from Holbein right through to Lichtenstein, his women are dateless. Their beauty and features and quandaries and pain transfer to today and instead of feeling distanced from paintings full of grand and unrecognisable women, I felt I knew women like them.
The anger of Circe as she poisons the sea is recognisable on the faces of forsaken women everywhere and the melancholy of her later mood is seen in Circe, A Sketch. 1914-17. Psyche, Opening the Golden Box, 1903 captures temptation and desire and the 1891 painting, Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891 shows a powerful woman commanding a room.
The regret of the red-dressed woman in Destiny, 1900 as she watches soldiers go to war and the sereneness of the woman in Dolce Far Niente, 1880 as she takes a breather from life; all of these capture recognisable women both current and past. In my opinion Waterhouse shows fear of the influence of women and sexuality in much of his work, but he also idolises women and recognises their capability and strength as well as their beauty.
I came out of the exhibition recommending it everywhere from Twitter to Tesco and even to friends who had previously called Waterhouse ‘too chocolate-boxy’. Not only because of his impressive marriage of French naturalist techniques with romantic imagination, but because of his relevant ability to paint women with this timeless quality which makes you truly believe and wonder about the stories of his heroines and the models who became them.
Make the effort to go before it finishes on Sunday and Waterhouse’s women are flown to the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands.
JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite is showing until September 13 at:
Sackler Wing of Galleries
The Royal Academy of Arts
General enquiries: 020 7300 8000
This exhibition is organised by the Groninger Museum, the Netherlands, with the collaboration of the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Image copyright Manchester City Galleries:
John William Waterhouse
Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896
Oil on canvas
98.2 x 163.3 cm