Art Blog 1: A historical artist I admire

John William Waterhouse

I began studying art history while I was studying in England. I hadn’t taken the subject before but we had dabbled in it in general art classes. It was here that I first came across the works of John William Waterhouse, an artist that I am very fond of, whose works invoke memories and creativity to me.

Waterhouse was an English painter, born in Rome to English parents in 1849, and died in 1917. He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his style is distinctly Pre-Raphaelite though he came after the first iteration of the movement. His paintings often depict Greek mythical scenes or characters, and figures from Shakespeare and English legend.

It’s not hard to see why I like this artist so much. Here are a few examples of his paintings that particularly stand out to me.

The Remorse of the Emperor Nero after the Murder of his Mother (1878)


I’m sort of a fan of the history of Nero’s empire and the stories that surround his reign, so this picture stands out to me as a great depiction of this moody guy. To me, this image seems more Greek than Roman, but I can’t put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s the warm colours and focus on the single figure. The sort of unhappy ambivalence on Nero’s face really highlights his rumoured erratic nature, and what kind of feelings one might feel after a matricide – by someone capable of such an act.

Cleopatra (1888)


This interpretation of Cleopatra is a lot less sexualized than other images you might see, and her posture in the throne gives an impression of “female king” rather than “queen”. I’m not sure about contemporary theories about Cleopatra at the time that Waterhouse painted this, but he certainly chose a much more Greek-inspired appearance. The dress and hairstyle in particular are more evocative of Greek decoration, in my opinion. The shadowed gaze is very intense and evocative of political tensions that surrounded Cleopatra. Nice!

Psyche Opening the Golden Box (1903)


I worked with Apuleius’ Metamorphoses for my MA thesis so the story of Cupid and Psyche is close to my heart. I like this depiction of Psyche because she looks quite young, and rather innocent, which suits her role in the story. Her curiosity (her great “fault”) appears harmless from the small peak into the box that holds ‘living death’ that she collected from Proserpine in the underworld. In that regard, it is interesting that this girl is shown right after returning from a voyage to the underworld – she looks remarkably well and composed for someone who has just had a brief fling with death. I would suspect that Waterhouse is very familiar with the details of this story.

I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott (1916)


I have a large print of this poster on the wall of my room so I can admit that I’ve spent a long time staring at it. The elements of the Arthurian story are all there – the loom and weaving, Lancelot coming near on the bridge outside, the threads wrapping around her legs trapping her in place in the tower. I think her expression shows both anxiety and curiousity. The idea of a woman trapped in her task without being permitted to explore other things lest she risk her downfall is very interesting and I think is a discourse I could definitely pursue. I’ll have to revisit it another time. Other paintings Waterhouse produced also seem to be a part of this scene, like The Lady of Shalott looking at Lancelot that he painted in 1894. Again, threads wrapped around her ankles. Very symbolic.

The influence from previous artists in this style is clear and the romantic images are rather iconic for the time period. I’d highly recommend that you all go and browse further works by Waterhouse, especially if you want to see more of his classically-inspired subjects!


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