In Hylas and the Nymphs John William Waterhouse depicts a story from Greek myth. According to the legend, Hylas, squire to Heracles, went in search of water when the expedition stopped on the island of Cios. Enraptured with the beauty of the water nymphs and unaware of the fate about to befall him, Hylas is lured to his death when he reaches into the spring. Waterhouse portrays Hylas surrounded by seven nearly identical red-haired water nymphs. This painting as well as La Belle Dame Sans Mercie reveals Waterhouse's fascination with the femme fatale, a recurring image used especially by French Symbolists in the late 19th century. In contrast to the typically mature, dangerous and lustful femme fatale figures of the Symbolists, these strikingly young females exude softness and sweetness as they examine Hylas with naive interest and wonder. With their superbly realistic skin tones, Waterhouses' nymphs resemble "real flesh and blood people, whereas Burne-Jones's are like beings from another planet" (Wood 142). In this dreamy, romantic scene we do not find the iconography and intensity of mood of the later Pre-Raphaelites such as Burne-Jones who seemed to deliberately cultivate a high-minded seriousness in reaction to the softer, more accessible paintings of his predecessors. For Waterhouse, the straightforward illustration of romantic stories from myth and poetry takes precedence over complex symbolism and intellectual subject matter.
Waterhouse is noted for being more of a realist than many of his late Pre-Raphaelite predecessors. In "On the Truth of Color," a chapter in Modern Painters, Vol. 1, John Ruskin praises artists like Turner who attempt to render their scenes with the same vibrancy of color and light found in nature. Does Waterhouse's attention to natural color and detail represent a return to Ruskin's theories?
According to Christopher Wood, Waterhouse's style classifies him as both a classicist and a Pre-Raphaelite. How is he more or less of a classicist than his predecessors?
According to Wood, Waterhouse's femme fatales "lure and entrap their victims by their wistful beauty and mysterious sadness, as if they cannot help what they are doing, and rather regret it" (144). Does Waterhouse strip his femme fatales of their fatal qualities to such an extent that they can no longer be categorized with the Circes, Sirens and Salomes of the Decadent movement? How do his water nymphs differ from the dark sorceress in The Magic Circle and the exotic and mysterious Mariamne whom he paints with almost photographic realism?
Waterhouse's interest in romantic subject matter from literature and legend was considered out-of-date by the end of his life. How does Waterhouse manage to reinterpret or at least add his own personal touch to what had become clichéd subject matter?
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Studio/Viking, 1981.
Last modified 1 December 2004