24 June 2011

Top Five Friday: John William Waterhouse

Everything in creation has its appointed painter or poet and remains in bondage like the princess in the fairy tale 'til its appropriate liberator comes to set it free. 
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were such liberators.  And they set many princesses ~ and princes ~ free with their brushes.  My original intent for today’s Top Five Friday was to pick five of my favorite paintings from within the entire body of work of the Brotherhood.  But that is an impossible task.  There are too many to whittle to just five!  So over the next few weeks, I will highlight one member of the Brotherhood and choose the top five of his paintings.  Today we look at John William Waterhouse, who is easily one of my favorites.

J.W. Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849, one year after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.   But he is linked with the Brotherhood through his paintings, especially those painted from 1884 onward.  The subjects of most of that period are the same ones that inspired Rossetti, et al: King Arthur, Greek myths and legends, princesses and fairy tales.  As such, he is considered a “Modern Pre-Raphaelite.”

Waterhouse lived only 68 years and painted right up until his death from cancer in London in 1917.  You can find out more about his life here at JW Waterhouse, or by reading Peter Trippi’s Waterhouse or Anthony Hobson’s JW Waterhouse.

And now to the paintings!



Ophelia – Blue Dress (1905)
There are many renditions of Ophelia, but this is one of my favorites for the sheer brilliance of the colours and the despairing expression in her eyes.  The detail in the hem of dress, the folds of the skirt and the stream behind her ~ ominously dark and grave-like.

Confession: I’ve always wanted a dress just like this one.  Any seamstresses out there?




Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May (1909)
My second favorite Waterhouse, again for the sharp colours.  The natural setting, the beauty of both the women and the flowers they are picking, and the gentle stream behind them [so different from the dark one in Ophelia] all lend an air of peace to the scene.  You are sure that the ladies have just had a picnic by the stream, and once their bouquets are picked, they will head home, each to her own restful cottage.




Miranda - The Tempest (1916)
I can feel the wind tear at my hair and hear the waves pound the shore whenever I look at this painting.  Waterhouse captured the movement and passion of the storm that rips at Miranda’s dark red hair.  In fact, quite a few of Waterhouse’s female subjects are gripping their long, dark, wind-blown hair.  [Again, love the dress.]




Mariana in the South (1897)
Taken from Tennyson’s Mariana in the South, the colours, the dark melancholy of the subject and the sheer length of her hair are what draw me to this painting and make it one of my top five.  Granted, she’s kneeling, but her hair is still really long!  I can only get mine to grow to the small of my back.
She, as her carol sadder grew,
         From brow and bosom slowly down
Thro' rosy taper fingers drew
         Her streaming curls of deepest brown
To left and right, and made appear,
         Still-lighted in a secret shrine,
         Her melancholy eyes divine,
The home of woe without a tear.
~ from Mariana in the South



The Crystal Ball – with skull (1902)
Even with tackling just one painter for this list, it was still difficult to pick just five of Waterhouse’s paintings.  But I had to highlight The Crystal Ball but I have a print of it hanging in my dining room.  Red is my favorite colour, and it’s the accent colour in my dining room, so this print went really well on the latte coloured walls. 

The detail here again is amazing: the tiled floor, the gilding on the chair and the scrollwork on her dress ~ which again I would love to have.

Some have interpreted the figure as weaving a spell with the aid of a crystal ball, spell book and skull.  But I take away a meditation on mortality and spirituality.  Something along the lines of et in arcadia ego.


That is the beauty of art, whatever the medium: the artist paints and the viewers [or reader] takes it in, mixes it with his or her own life experiences and philosophies and sees a message written just for them.  The artist can view this personal interpretation as an annoyance: an obstacle to the message they are trying to convey.  But aren’t we also re-interpreting the subject when we paint/write/act/play?

What about you?  What do you see when you look at these paintings?  What other Waterhouse paintings inspire, excite, calm or enthrall you?

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Next Friday: The Top Five Paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Post a Comment