According to Christopher Wood's enormously knowledgable Olympian Dreamers (1983), John William Waterhouse made the "greatest contribution" to the the classical movement of any of the late-Victorian or Edwardian painters, creating a successful synthesis of the styles of Leighton and Burne-Jones:
In his work the classicism of Leighton and the aestheticism of Burne-Jones are fused, to produce a highly individual and romantic style. Like Leighton, Waterhouse mainly painted subjects from classical legend, but like Burne-Jones, he reinterpreted them in a uniquely poetic and imaginative way. Waterhouse, however, was much more of a realist than Burne-Jones. The same mood of nostalgia and melancholy pervades their pictures, but Waterhouse's style has strong affinities with the work of the Newlyn painters, and with other followers of French plein-air realism. Waterhouse's nymphs and goddesses are real, flesh-and-blood people; those of Burne-Jones come from another planet. Looking at Waterhouse's famous Hylas and the Nymphs, one seems to have chanced upon a group of Victorian mermaids luring a shepherd to his doom in the depths of a mysterious, but very English forest. By contrast. Burne-Jones's Mirror of Venus or his legend of Perseus series might be happening on the moon. The key to Waterhouse's style is his unique gift for combining reality and poetry. Perhaps more than any other Victorian classical painter, Waterhouse makes the legends of antiquity come alive.
Christopher Newall, who describes J. W. W. Waterhouse as "one of the last great subject painters in British art," similarlly comments that he "took his inspiration from each of the great Victorian painters and evolved a distinctive style in which classicism and romanticism, and fantasy and reality, are blended. . . . . He was less concerned with fine detail than any of his High Victorian forbears; his debt to Pre-Raphaelitism was one of subject matter and richness of colour rather than degree of finish."
As Wood points out, however, Waterhouse's relation to other artists of the day reveals great complexity, since after he married Esther Kenworthy in 1883 and moved into Primrose Studios, where they lived for 17 years, they encountered "a colony of young artists, and Waterhouse formed many important friendships, in particular with Maurice Greiffenhagen, William Logsdail and Frank Bramley. All these artists were connected with the Newlyn School, and admired the realist style of Bastien-Lepage and the French plein air school. All this had an important influence on Waterhouse's technique and style" (228), which appears in his famous painting of the Lady of Shalott sitting in her boat — a picture, says, Wood, "painted in an exceptionally strong and broad realistic style. Were it not for the subject, one would think it a work by Stanhope Forbes or Fred Bramley. . . It shows Waterhouse's ability to combine uncompromising realism with a poetic subject" (220), which he never abandoned.
Newall, Christopher. A Celebration of British and European Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Peter Nahum, nd [1999?]. Pp. 46-47.
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983. 224-44.
Last modified 8 November 2006