The Pre-Raphaelites, a group of artists in the mid-nineteenth century, challenged the artistic conventions of their day as they sought to return art to a truer state. Rebelling against the teachings of the Royal Academy schools, which emphasized pyramidal compositions of figures, imbalanced lighting, and the prominence of tone and shadow at the expense of color, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1849. Its members included William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Sir John Everett Millais. From the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood arose a larger circle of artists who formed the movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism. Bright colors, even lighting, and flat figures marked the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings as they aimed to achieve photographic realism in their art, particularly in their representations of nature.
"The Lady of Shalott", one of Tennyson's most well-known poems, inspired a number of Pre-Raphaelite artists. The poem appealed to these artists because of its eroticized medieval setting and tragic subject, popular themes in Pre-Raphaelite art. Artists such as Hunt, Rossetti, John William Waterhouse, Sidney Harold Meteyard, and John Liston Byam Shaw painted various scenes from the poem, capturing their fascination with themes of tragic love, the beautiful, imprisoned woman figure, and the conflicted role of the artist. While these well-established male artists illustrated Pre-Raphaelite ideals in their renditions of "The Lady of Shalott", the poem also inspired some lesser-known female artists of the period, such as Elizabeth Siddal, Inez Warry, and Florence Rutland. As a whole, these women's illustrations dramatized, romanticized, and sexualized the subject to a lesser extent than men's illustrations did.
I. The Poem
Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott", a poem in four parts, tells the story of a cursed Lady imprisoned on the island of Shalott. Forbidden even a single glance out of her window, she sits each day weaving a tapestry that illustrates the outside world -- which she may glimpse only through her mirror's reflections. One day, however, the Lady hears the voice of Sir Lancelot as he rides by outside, and she catches sight of his reflection in her mirror. Captivated, she steps away from her loom and looks out the window to see him, and thus doomed by her love, the Lady leaves the island on a boat, in which she dies.
An atmosphere of mystery pervades the poem, one of the reasons it so intrigued Pre-Raphaelite artists, who were eager to express the images of their imaginations (Nelson 4). Tennyson opens the poem with descriptions of the beautiful island on which the Lady is imprisoned, rather than explaining anything about the Lady herself. He finally mentions her in the last line of the second stanza, and even then, only briefly.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
?Through the wave that runs forever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
The vibrancy of the outside world contrasts with the Lady's prison of "gray" walls and towers, asserting her isolation from the activity of life. Yet although Tennyson introduces the Lady in this stanza, the poem's sense of mystery continues. Throughout the poem, Tennyson thoroughly details the outside world, while the Lady remains a woman of mystery. Tennyson does not explain what the Lady looks like, why the Lady is cursed, or her inner state of mind. One of the only times the Lady speaks during the poem, and one of the only times Tennyson alludes to her thoughts or emotions, occurs in the eighth stanza.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half-sick of shadows, " said
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson considered this declaration the poem's most crucial moment (Nelson 5). Although at first the Lady seemed content to remain isolated from the darkness and sadness of the world outside, another aspect of that life appealed to her: seeing the "two young lovers lately wed" made her yearn for a lover of her own. Tennyson's use of contrasts within the poem highlight this conflict. As mentioned before, Tennyson juxtaposes descriptions of the lively outside world with the Lady's stark, static existence in her room. Although the Lady might be satisfied with safely weaving her tapestry from a distance, removed from the pain the world outside could offer, her admission in this stanza proves that she is not content. This discontent causes the Lady's fateful actions in the thirteenth stanza.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
?She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
?Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me, " cried
The Lady of Shalott.
The Lady at last sees the outside world directly, and she must now die. The image of the blooming water-lily, the first bit of life the Lady directly gazes upon out her window, may represent the Lady herself, interacting with the natural world for the first time. However, the cursed Lady cannot exist as a part of this life. Getting into a boat, upon which she carves her name, the dying Lady leaves her island. The boat floats towards Camelot, where in the last stanza Lancelot finds the Lady dead.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott. "
Lancelot cannot know that the Lady's love for him caused her death, that she sacrificed everything so that she might experience his love. Adding to the irony of the scene, the Lady has in fact finally joined Lancelot's physical world, as he stands before her body, but she nevertheless cannot share her love with him. Together in the outside world, the Lady and Lancelot still exist separately, one living and the other dead, and the Lady never achieves what she desired — she remains forever alone.
II. Literature and Illustration
Pre-Raphaelite artists often drew from literary sources in their artwork, using subjects of literary narration to portray individualized emotional conflicts. These personal, internal states stood as metaphors for the common condition of humanity as a whole. It thus follows that the most popular scenes which artists illustrated from "The Lady of Shalott" expressed the Lady's emotional turmoil, showing the imprisoned Lady, "half-sick of shadows"; the Lady looking out her window at Lancelot; the Lady leaving the island; the dying Lady in her boat; and the dead Lady in her boat (Nelson 6). However, the same artists drawn to the intense conflicts within "The Lady of Shalott" often did not remain faithful to the poem's explanations of events. Tennyson's sparse descriptions of the Lady allowed artists a great deal of freedom in illustrating the poem, yet these artists often did not remain faithful to what little details were given them.
According to John Ruskin, the youong artists' departures from the poem expressed their artistic visions and goals. Ruskin stated in a letter to Tennyson regarding the illustrations of the Moxon Tennyson, "Many of the plates are very noble things, though not, it seems to me, illustrations of your poems. I believe, in fact, that good pictures never can be; they are always another poem, subordinate but wholly different from the poet's conception, and serve chiefly to show the reader how variously the same verses may affect various minds" (Nelson 15). This explanation, however, did not satisfy Tennyson, who expressed dissatisfaction with the artists' unfaithful renderings (Nelson 15-16).
William Holman Hunt's two versions of The Lady of Shalott: His woodblock illustration from the Moxon Tennyson at left and the painting he finished four decades afterward at the right.
[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]In particular, Tennyson complained about Hunt's interpretation in his The Lady of Shalott, which detailed the scene in which the Lady looks out her window and realizes her fate (Nelson 15). Hunt's painting, very similar to his Moxon Tennyson version of the scene, depicts the Lady in elaborate surroundings, unlike the stark room described in the poem. Hunt also takes the liberty of representing the Lady tangled in her tapestry's threads, a detail not included in the poem and of which Tennyson did not approve. However, Hunt had a purpose in straying from certain elements of the poem. For example, the ornate decoration of the Lady's room served to communicate concepts such as the conflict between pure love and romantic, passionate love, a tension represented by the image of the Virgin and Child on the left side of the painting and the image of Hercules taking the golden apples of Hesperides on the right side of the painting. Other elaborations of the poem, such as the details of the Lady's hair blowing violently about her and the threads of the Lady's tapestry entangling her, reinforce Hunt's rendition of a wild emotional state. These deviations do not detract from viewers' recognition of the subject matter. For example, Hunt includes the Lady's loom and the cracked mirror with Lancelot's reflection, which identify the painting as the climactic scene from Tennyson's poem.
Similar variations occur in Rutland's The Lady of Shalott, an illustration of the same scene. Rutland, like Hunt, portrays the intense emotion of the moment, in this version through the Lady's aghast facial expression and the way her tapestry's threads reach around her body. Also like Hunt, Rutland includes the identifying loom and cracked mirror. However, Rutland details the Lady's room as decorated with religious images upon the walls and furniture. These details, not found in the poem, give the illustration a symbolic depth that suggests the Lady's purity and asserts her sacrifice. As with Hunt's painting, in order for a viewer to fully comprehend Rutland's illustration, the viewer requires knowledge of Tennyson's poem. However, Hunt's and Rutland's depictions of intense psychological states allow the illustrations to remain powerful nevertheless. Perhaps, in fact, these illustrations would not produce the same emotional effects were the Lady not tangled in her own tapestry, her facial expression not one of horror, or her hair not blowing forcefully about her. Perhaps in order to achieve the power of the written scene, Hunt and Rutland found it necessary to rearrange and reconstruct elements of their visual representations.
The Lady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Siddal's drawing of the scene, The Lady of Shalott at her loom, is perhaps the most faithful illustration to the poem, yet it lacks the intensity of Hunt's and Rutland's versions. Siddal accurately illustrates the starkness of the Lady's surroundings, seating the Lady appropriately at her loom, with Lancelot's reflection in the cracked mirror. Compared to the illustrations by Hunt and Rutland, Siddal's appears simple and unembellished. Siddal's drawing departs from the poem only in its inclusion of a crucifix in front of the window, an image that adds symbolic meaning to the illustration in the same way Rutland's religious ornamentations suggested purity and sacrifice. However, Siddal's much more straightforward construction of the scene lacks the emotional intensity of Hunt's and Rutland's illustrations. By remaining faithful to Tennyson's staging of the scene, Siddal in fact betrays the poem in another way -- her Lady seems quietly calm, rather than appropriately frenzied and passionate.
Warry, in contrast, renders the Lady more inaccurately than Hunt, Rutland, or Siddal, and for different reasons entirely. Warry's The Lady of Shalott illustrates the Lady very early in the poem, before the Lady's announcement that she has grown tired of shadows. Yet Warry's Lady does not weave at a loom, nor does she appear imprisoned in a room with a mirror or window. Instead, Warry depicts a dignified Lady seated on a cushioned stool, contentedly embroidering. These drastic alterations reveal Warry's goal of presenting the Lady not as a powerful, tragic figure, but as a respectable upper-class Victorian woman. In this version, in fact, there are no signs, other than the title, that this image illustrates "The Lady of Shalott". By removing all visual links to its literary source, Warry created a generalized image whose connection to the poem remains only in its title.
III. Tragic Love
"The Lady of Shalott" attracted various Pre-Raphaelite artists through its theme of tragic love. The poem's demonstration of the melancholy aspects of love, and the spiritual state of suffering for love, fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites. The poem dealt with the popular topic of unrequited love, and the Lady of Shalott exemplified the unattainable woman, the cursed woman, and the woman sacrificing everything for a doomed love (Nelson 6). Artists such as Hunt, Waterhouse, and Shaw emphasized these themes by illustrating the most tragic scenes of the poem. They concentrated on those moments which best portrayed the Lady's suffering, and they affirmed her suffering in their dramatic renderings of her.
Left: The Lady of Shalott by John Byam Liston Shaw.
Left: The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse.
[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]Both Shaw and Waterhouse illustrate the Lady dying. In his The Lady of Shalott, Shaw paints the Lady inscribing her name along the side of the boat in which she will die. She rests dramatically on her knees, her head tilted to the side with an expression of deep sorrow. Dead leaves fall about her, symbolizing her own oncoming death. Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott takes place moments later, as the Lady frees herself from the island of her imprisonment. She sits upon her tapestry in the boat, and she holds the chain in her right hand. Waterhouse asserts the Lady's emotional distress through her facial expression: her eyes stare forward in trancelike grief, and her mouth has dropped open slightly. Waterhouse places three candles and a crucifix at the front of the boat, again affirming the Lady's sacrifice through religious symbols, which in this scene also suggest a funeral-like mood. A single, dead leaf has fallen onto the Lady's lap, foreshadowing her fate, as in Shaw's illustration.
The portrayals by Siddal and Warry, however, did not display an equal fixation with the concept of tragic love. Although Siddal's drawing illustrates the moment at which the Lady turns from her loom to look at Lancelot directly, she shows no recognition of her fate. The Lady's expression is not horrified; she shows no signs of distress. Instead, the Lady appears entirely composed. Warry's depiction shares this sense of calm. In this illustration, the Lady has not yet heard Lancelot's voice or declared herself "half-sick of shadows". While Siddal expresses the poem's climax as an emotionless moment, Warry actually illustrates the poem's most emotionless moment, as the Lady shows no yearnings or inner turmoil whatsoever at this point. It thus seems that Siddal and Warry did not share the Pre-Raphaelite goal of displaying love at its most tragic. Instead, Siddal illustrated the poem at a purely visual level: she placed the figures and objects precisely as she read them to be placed, ignoring the poem's emotional plane altogether. Warry, meanwhile, could not have exhibited the tragic aspect of the Lady's story and simultaneously achieved her goal of presenting the Lady as a dignified Victorian woman, so it seems she chose the latter objective.
Rutland's illustration, though displaying a state of emotional distress, nevertheless does not appear quite as tragic or dramatic as the illustrations by male artists. Rutland does not illustrate the Lady at her most tragic, dying or dead, but she does interpret the poem's climactic moment as a moment of emotional turmoil. The Lady, realizing her doom, steps forward, her body hunched as though weak with alarm. One hand grips the small table beside her, and she presses her other hand against the side of her head. She has a horrified facial expression, and the threads of her tapestry have blown forward, some snaking between her arm and waist. Rutland's illustration displays much more emotional intensity than those of Siddal and Warry, and in fact shows many similarities to the images of the same scene by Waterhouse and Hunt. The pose of Rutland's Lady seems to mimic that of Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott, as she steps forward in the same hunched position. Rutland's illustration resembles Hunt's painting in the detail of the threads blowing about the room. However, Hunt's illustration appears much more frenzied and chaotic, showing his Lady actually tangled in the threads, her hair blowing wildly about her to symbolize her inner turmoil. Thus while Rutland's illustration presented the Lady as a more tragic figure than did Siddal or Warry, it seems that overall, male artists such as Waterhouse, Shaw, and Hunt displayed a greater fascination with the tragic aspects of love.
IV. The Lady of Shalott as an Object of Desire
Left: "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott by John Byam Liston Shaw.
Left: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott by Sidney Harold Meteyard.
[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]Although Victorian attitudes towards women were highly complex, the most striking difference between male artists' representations of the Lady of Shalott and female artists' representations occurred in the artists' attitudes towards the Lady as a woman. Male artists stressed the Lady's position as an object of desire, depicting her as an idealized, sensual woman: beautiful, mysterious, pure, and above all, unattainable (Nelson 7). These characteristics of the Lady contributed to her supreme desirability, which was emphasized in illustrations by artists such as Meteyard, Hunt, and Rossetti.
In "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, Meteyard painted the moment at which the Lady declared the famous line. However, the emphasis of the painting does not seem to be upon the Lady's emotional distress, but rather on the Lady as a beautiful, sensual woman. The Lady reclines erotically in her seat, the thin, soft fabrics of her dress accentuating the shape of her body. Her head leans to one side, revealing the delicate white skin of her neck, intensified in contrast to the darker shades of the painting. Flowers surround the Lady; like her, they are delicately soft and pale. The Lady's eyes are closed as though she is lost in a dream, and this position highlights her situation as a vulnerable object: she cannot see anything, but anyone may stare at her, as her sensual pose invites viewers to do.
Hunt painted a different type of woman, less overtly sexualized, yet nevertheless the typical Pre-Raphaelite woman of ideal form. Hunt's Lady of Shalott resembled the idealized Rossettian woman, with strong facial features, full lips, and bright red hair. Hunt punctuates her physical beauty by leaving her thick hair loose, the wind drawing additional attention to this feature by spreading it upwards in the air. Hunt also leaves the Lady's feet bare, revealing her skin as they peek out from beneath her dress, which the wind has lifted to expose her undergarments. The decorations of the Lady's room further her desirability. The image of the Virgin and Child suggests the Lady's purity, while the image of Hercules suggests romantic passion: Hunt has achieved a Lady who is at once pure and erotic. In addition, the inclusion of exotic objects, such as the teapot and sandals, add to the Lady's alluring mystery.
Launcelot Gazing upon the Lady of Shalott by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (from the Moxon Tennyson)Rossetti's illustration The Lady of Shalott depicts the moment at which Lancelot gazes upon the dead Lady, remarking that she "has a lovely face." In this illustration, Rossetti presents the Lady as a pure woman, her garments fully covering her body, yet this representation may also most blatantly render the Lady an object. She lies limply at the bottom of the frame, while Lancelot, stooping down to stare at her, takes up the majority of the space. Lancelot, towering over the Lady, appears strong and powerful, while she appears defenseless, vulnerable to his gaze as he judges her beauty. The figures' poses assert Lancelot's position of power, as he stands firmly, in contrast to the Lady's position as a mere object, lying in her boat.
Illustrations by female artists, however, did not reduce the Lady of Shalott to an object of desire. Instead, the illustrations by Siddal and Warry define the Lady by her position, either in relation to her surroundings and situation of imprisonment, or in relation to her status in society. These portrayals do not emphasize the Lady's sensuality. Siddal's illustration shows little attention to details of the Lady's body. She wears a plain, loose-fitting gown, and her body has a very simple form. This illustration does not focus on the Lady's beauty, as Siddal draws her plainly. There is nothing sensual about the Lady's pose; she simply sits before her loom, head turned toward the window. In fact, it does not seem that this drawing focuses on the Lady as a woman, but on the Lady as a figure seated before a loom -- the Lady is an element of a larger scene, and therefore the scene, not her appearance, defines her. This scene underscores the Lady's situation of imprisonment. The walls are bare, and there is no sign of a door. She sits in the center of the rather small room, alone in her sparse surroundings. Here, the Lady is a figure of imprisonment, not a sensual being.
Warry's version does concentrate on the Lady herself, but it does not present her sensually. Although Warry emphasizes the Lady's appearance, she wears clothing that covers all but her hands, neck, and face. Her hair is modestly pinned up, and she even wears a hat with a long veil. She does not pose sensually; she sits and embroiders. This illustration portrays the Lady as a refined woman, not as an object of desire. Warry defines her Lady by her place in society, as an upper-class Victorian woman. Rather than engaging in weaving, which was normally left to the lower classes, she daintily embroiders. It is not even clear from this illustration that the Lady is imprisoned, cursed, or doomed; she displays none of the characteristics that would identify her as an object of desire to Pre-Raphaelite artists.
Rutland's illustration brings an aspect of sensuality to the scene that does not appear in the illustrations by Siddal and Warry, but in this illustration the Lady does not appear vulnerable or defenseless. The Lady's hair is loose and flowing, and she has the bold facial features of a typical Pre-Raphaelite woman of beauty. Her curved stance draws attention to her physicality, lending her figure a weight not seen in the depictions by Siddal and Warry. She is both the imprisoned woman and the mysterious woman here: her elaborate dress and the decorations of her chamber accentuate the air of mysterious beauty surrounding her. Yet Rutland gives her Lady a sort of power. Stepping forward, gazing out at the viewer, there is a challenge to her look. The Lady may be sensual and beautiful, but Rutland empowers her by allowing her to stare back at those who stare at her.
V. The Artist's Conflict
The Lady of Shalott was an attractive subject to the Pre-Raphaelites also because she could represent the artist, and her fate could represent the destruction of the artist by the necessity of interacting directly with the world (Nelson 5). The poem places the Lady in a state of isolation, torn between the outside world and her necessary confinement, lost in a world of shadows. In fact, this world of shadows in which the Lady lives highlights her role as an artist figure, as it affirms her distance from the reality of nature. She weaves images from reflections, not even from any actual life she might see outside her window. The conflicts between the Lady's interior and exterior worlds exemplify the tension between the artist's function of creating his or her own interpretation of nature and the simultaneous necessity of directly experiencing the natural world. The Pre-Raphaelites' explorations of these conflicts appear in their illustrations through their use of symbols, particularly the Lady's mirror.
For example, Hunt's painting emphasizes the large mirror in the background, upon which the image of Lancelot riding away in the fields appears somewhat faded compared to the vibrant colors elsewhere in the painting, asserting the reflection's place as a mere shadow of life. Hunt also portrays the Lady in darkness, while sunlight from the window, the world outside, falls across the floor and her legs, representing her first steps into this livelier world. Hunt further clarifies the Lady's position as an artist figure by tangling her in her own creation, the threads of her tapestry.
Meteyard's illustration, which details the moment at which the Lady declares her dissatisfaction with the world of shadows, places emphasis on the Lady's internal state. The mirror behind her does not actually reflect the outside world at all. It appears mostly dark, except for the small image of two lovers at its center. Here, the mirror seems to reflect the Lady's thoughts and dreams. The flowers, symbols of fleeting, fragile life, contrast the Lady's creation, her tapestry, which is long-lasting but not alive in the same way. Instead, her tapestry diminishes to a shadow of a shadow, woven from a reflection. The Lady even turns her head away from the flowers, representing her rejection of, or inability to join, the natural world. She instead remains a part of her isolated, interior world.
The illustrations by Warry and Siddal emphasize the Lady's situation as an isolated, conflicted artist to a lesser extent than Hunt's and Meteyard's illustrations do. Warry's illustration, for example, does not reflect a deep interest in defining or illustrating the role of the artist. Perhaps because Warry's version did not attempt to achieve any deep artistic goal, but rather attempted to present a respectable Victorian woman, Warry gives no sign of the Lady's isolation and represents no tension between creating an inner artistic vision and experiencing life outside directly.
Siddal's illustration does depict the Lady's isolation and the conflict between the interior and exterior worlds, but Siddal does not stress these themes. Although Siddal portrays the Lady cut off from the outside world, and her stark, cramped room contrasts with the open field on the other side of her window, these details come from the poem itself. The crucifix before the window is the only embellishment Siddal includes in her drawing. The crucifix punctuates the Lady's dilemma, for in order to see the crucifix, she must look out the window. Reinforcing the concept of shadows, Siddal places the crucifix so that the Lady may, however, glimpse the crucifix's shadow without raising her eyes to look out the window. This conspicuous placement of the crucifix alludes to a certain inevitability of the Lady's situation, suggesting that she has no choice but to look at the world directly. Nevertheless, Siddal's drawing does not focus on the crucifix in the way that Hunt's and Meteyard's paintings assert the artist's conflict. Siddal's crucifix, at least at first glance, appears a minor detail added to her faithful, simple illustration of the poem.
Rutland makes a more blatant connection between the Lady's situation and that of an artist, wrapping the threads of the Lady's tapestry around her body. The mirror in this illustration also figures prominently, large and in the center of the picture, framed by empty black space that highlights its significance even more. However, Rutland does not contain the Lady's reality to the space within the illustration. Instead, the Lady faces directly outward at the viewers. In contrast to the tapestry's usual function as the shadow of a shadow, it seems as though Rutland's Lady may directly glimpse the viewer's reality, removing one layer of obstruction. This added level may be interpreted as an inventive way of handling the artistic conflict posed by the poem, or it may be that by de-emphasizing the window, de-emphasizing the Lady's removal from the natural world, Rutland de-emphasizes the Lady's position as an artist figure.
Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" inspired and intrigued many Pre-Raphaelite artists because of its tragic subject matter and treatment of the conflicted role of the artist. As a whole, however, male artists and female artists approached certain aspects of its illustration differently. Artists such as Hunt, Waterhouse, Rossetti, and Meteyard emphasized the tragic aspects of the Lady's love and her place as an object of desire, while artists such as Siddal and Warry focused more on the Lady's position in relation to her surroundings and status. Rutland's illustration overlapped these differing methods, presenting the Lady's sensuality and emotional turmoil, but to a lesser extent than did illustrations by male artists.
Nelson, Elizabeth. "Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott. " Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts. Providence: Brown University Department of Art, 1985.
Last modified 27 December 2006