The rise and fall of Waterhouse
He was a contemporary of both John Singer Sargent and Vincent van Gogh. However his his profile during life, at death and since provides a salutary lesson in how an artist can be very popular during his lifetime and yet fall out of favour. His death in 1917 went unremarked by many. After his death the value of his paintings plummetted and his widow disposed of many at much reduced prices. His art was ignored for many years . His grave in Kensal Green Cemetary now seems neglected.
His paintings were Pre-Raphaelite in subject but not in style. Subject matter was often about mystical experiences of emotional or physical transformation. he illustrated myths and poems which were at the time very familiar to people. He painted Ophelia three times and you can see two of them in this post.
Anybody interested in wanting to explore his art more can study the themes present in his work by following links on this page on the Art and Life of John William Waterhouse.
Wild women to winsome waifs
(It would have made a great blog title.!) Trippi commented that Waterhouse's figures are convincing but lack that rigorous anatomical precision that makes some academic classical art quite intimidating.
Feminine figures with a palpable sense of blood flowing through their veins.Many people have praised "The Waterhouse Girl" - the idealized nymph. She often seemed to be very much the same type only varying due to the colour of her hair. Cathy Baker has written an essay about 'The Waterhouse Ideal"
His female figures were identified by Trippi as being quintessentially English (even when given a classical name), always fashionable, thin without being sickly and fit without being muscular. The consensus seems to have been that the level of nudity and decorously positioned wisps of fabric and long, long hair achieved a deft balance between sensuality and decorum.
I found it fascinating that nobody knew much about his models although it's apparent that some appeared in numerous paintings. The red-haired lady appears in more than 60 paintings.
Why was his art highly regarded?
Trippi suggests that colour was very important. His figures had exquisite colouring and there was an innate Englishness about his colour palette which linked him to the other Pre-Raphaeilite paintings, Constable and Turner.
I know that Maggie was particularly struck by the colours and the glazes he used when she tried to reproduce some of the paintings.
Millais and Manet both influenced Waterhouse's style - his figures were in sharp focus while his backgrounds were in soft focus - a style which remain pervasive in modern advertising today.
Interestingly, like Van Gogh, he too was influenced by the Japanese woodblock prints. He juxtaposed areas of saturated pigment, used blod cropping and often eliminated the foreground.
His style has been characterised as realism with an impressionist flair. His technique indicates that he had absorbed lessons from the Impressionists. He changed the consistency of the paint and its application to suggest spatial recession and also to draw attention to the figure. Figures frequently have many layers of paint or thick paint while backgrounds may only have thin washes.
Trees were important in his compositions and he studied his subject by drawing foliage of all descriptions. He also used trees to structure compositions and direct the viewer's eye. Trees in his paintings. began to play a symbolic role - they reached up to the sky and down into the earth. They began to be used as symbols of poliferation and acted as a screen between one world and another - such as in "The Naiad where the screen of trunks exists between the watery domain and the earthly one.
I'm not sure why I wasn't much enamoured by Waterhouse. I puzzled about it and I guess that maybe the mythical and classical themes are not ones which do much for me personally.
My personal favourite out of all his paintings is probably one of the ones that looks least like a Waterhouse. It appears to be a study of a real place and real little girls - and I love his trees!
- Making a Mark: Introducing Waterhouse and the pre-Raphaelites
- The Art and Life of John William Waterhouse
- Paintings (in the order above):
- Ophelia, 1889, oil on canvas, 38.5 x 62 inches, Private Collection UK (Lord Lloyd Webber)
- Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, oil on canvas, 38 x 64 inches, Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, England
- Ophelia, 1910, oil on canvas, 40 x 24 inches, Private Collection
- A Naiad, 1893, oil on canvas, Private Collection.
- Two little Italian girls, c1875, oil on canvas, 24 x 16 inches, Private Collection