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Waterhouse, John William

Category: Artist and sculptor

John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917) was an English painter known for working in the Pre-Raphaelite style, although he painted several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Born in Italy to English parents who were both painters, he moved to England with them in childhood.  After enrolling in the Royal Academy of Art, he was soon exhibiting at their annual summer exhibitions, focusing on the creation of large canvas works depicting scenes from the daily life and mythology of ancient Greece. It was only later in his career that he came to embrace the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting.

His paintings are lovely and are still popular even today, but their theme once he had embraced the Pre-Raphaelite style, seems almost universally to be that of unrequited love. 

If we trace his career, we see that in 1871 he entered the Royal Academy of Art school, initially to study sculpture, before moving on to painting.  His early works were not Pre-Raphaelite in nature, but were of classical themes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton and in 1874 his painting Sleep and His Half Brother Death was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition. The painting was a success and Waterhouse would exhibit at the annual exhibition every year until 1916, with the exception of 1890 and 1915. But although technically wonderful, these paintings seem somehow not to have the force of emotion of his later works and are certainly nowhere near as symbolic.

In 1883 – aged 34 - he married Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art schoolmaster from Ealing. I cannot find a definitive version of their marriage, with some sources saying they had no children and yet others saying they had two children who both died in childhood.  If this is true then grief may have played a part in his later painting style.

Perhaps more important, however, is that by 1891, Waterhouse had discovered his most famous and beautiful model, Muriel Foster, she can be seen thereafter in all his most important paintings.  And from this point on we see the themes of unrequited love start to appear.  Waterhouse was painting at the very height of Victorian moral restrictions, some idea of just how prudish the establishment were at this time can be judged by the reception given to Edward Burne-Jones.

One of Waterhouse's most famous paintings is The Lady of Shalott, a study of Elaine of Astolat, who dies of grief when Lancelot will not love her.  Another of Waterhouse's favourite subjects was Ophelia; another woman who died from love rejected.  He painted Dante and Beatrice, and Narcissus

Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephisus and the nymph Liriope. He was loved by Echo.  Passing by a stream, the beautiful youth caught a glimpse of his reflection in a stream and became transfixed by the lovely image. Believing it to be the form of a nymph, he vainly courted the watery mirage and wasted away through unrequited love. He was transformed into the flower that bears his name and poor Echo pined away until nothing but her voice remained.

And it is in this last myth that we see what sort of unrequited love Waterhouse painted – it was not earthly love but the love of the Higher spirit.  The love of the Conscious for the Subconscious and the longing for the Chemical wedding.  Human love is transformed and becomes devotion to a higher goal.  Fidele d'amore – through the unrequited love or perhaps more correctly the unconsummated love of a human being one discovers love for the Higher spirit.

So Waterhouse was a deeply spiritual man, who appears to have identified strongly with this theme.

One of his final works was The Enchanted Garden, shown here, and left unfinished at his death. It too has Muriel Foster. She is in pink, there are poppies and a fountain as well as roses.  A shadow man holds a sword.

Towards the latter part of his life, Waterhouse's health was failing and he was gravely ill with cancer by 1915. He died two years later, aged 68.

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