Tuesday, July 28, 2009
John William Waterhouse
I've just spent a couple of days in London and the main purpose of my visit was to see the exhibition of paintings by John William Waterhouse at The Royal Academy. As I walked round I scribbled notes on my free guide about my thoughts as I finally saw in reality some of the paintings I've only seen in books or online before. The picture above is 'Circe Offering The Cup to Ulysses' and is the one chosen for the cover of the guide and for the publicity posters. What struck me about this was the way Waterhouse caught the wonderful diaphanous quality of Circe's robe. All the photographs are taken from the web of course as no photography was allowed in the actual Exhibition. I have to tell you now that I know nothing about art or the techniques involved, I simply know what I like - an attitude that infuriates my two artist friends both of whom are talented painters!
Another painting of the sorceress Circe - a very rare chance to see this as its usual home is the Art Gallery of South Australia. The title is Circe Invidiosa and it shows her in the seclusion of a quiet grotto poisoning the water where the beautiful nymph Scylla goes to bathe. The poisoned waters turn her rival into a dreadful sea monster. I loved this because of the wonderful vibrant turquoise of the water which isn't as obvious in the photograph as it is in the actual painting.
Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?
The Mermaid was first shown at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1901 and Waterhouse was inspired by the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I loved this painting, he captures the sheen of the fishscales on her tail perfectly.
There were two paintings of The Lady of Shalott and this was my favourite of the two - "I am half sick of shadows said The Lady of Shalott" If you click on the quote it will take you to my post of the whole of Tennyson's beautiful poem.
Each year, as payment for the slaughter of Minos' son, the Athenians offered a tribute of youths and maidens to the Minotaur that dwelt in the Cretan labyrinth. Designed by Daedalus, the labyrinth was so large and complicated that nobody had ever escaped from it. Ariadne's father, Minos, the King of Crete, selected Theseus as part of the annual offering, but on his arrival at the island Ariadne fell in love with him and, not wanting to see him die, secretly gave him a spool of thread by which he could trace his way from the maze. Theseus slew the Minotaur and fled from Crete, carrying Ariadne away as his wife, but when they arrived at the island of Naxos the Olympic gods shrouded his mind with forgetfulness and he deserted her while she lay asleep.
That is the story behind this painting but what really attracted me were the two panthers which I think Waterhouse has captured beautifully. They are there because they are sacred to the god Bacchus who, in some versions of the legend, came to her rescue and made her his wife giving her a golden crown as a wedding gift. After her death he placed her golden crown in the heavens and turned it into the constellation still called Corona Borealis or the Northern Crown.
This was the painting that kept drawing me back, it is the largest of the works by John William Waterhouse and shows Mariamne, wife of King Herod, after she has been condemned to death for adultery. I found the figure of Mariamne so mesmerising that I hardly noticed the background and had to make a real effort to look at it.
Not all of Waterhouse's paintings were of beautiful women, this is one of his earliest works painted in 1876 and called 'After The Dance'. It shows a Roman interior with two children resting after their performance.
My final choice from the exhibits is this one 'Penelope and the Suitors' which was painted in 1912 towards the end of Waterhouse's life. Ulysses is believed to be dead by everyone but Penelope and she is being courted by many suitors, all obnoxious and none of whom she wants to marry. In order to delay the moment when she must choose among them, she starts weaving a shroud for her aged father-in-law Laertes saying that she will choose when it is done. When Ulysses finally returns home after twenty years she tells him how she deceived the suitors 'So then in the daytime I would weave the mighty web, and in the night unravel the same'.
There were a hundred paintings and drawings in the Exhibition and it was hard to choose my favourites, Waterhouse had an incredible talent for painting beautiful women and I was especially impressed by the way he painted their hair. I have shown just a handful from among the many beautiful paintings that I saw and it was hard to choose which to include and which to leave out. I did buy the full 'catalogue' so now I can look at them whenever I like. Why it is called a catalogue is beyond me, it is a large glossy book with over 200 pages and well worth the £18.95 that it cost me. I really enjoyed seeing these wonderful works of art and am glad I made the effort to go. It's made me want to look for other interesting exhibitions to visit in the future and I shall also make time for visits to the National Gallery and the Tate next time I'm in London.