Waterhouse’s “I am Half Sick of Shadows — said the Lady of Shallot” portrays the heroine of Tennyson’s poem lamenting her confinement. True to the poem, the lady is positioned at her loom, weaving “A magic web of colours gay” and looking at the world via the reflection in the mirror (Tennyson). Waterhouse places the mirror prominently in the center of the wall behind the Lady of Shalott and painting quickly becomes claustrophobic as the onlooker realizes that the scene behind the woman is a mirror rather than a real window. She seems to be squeezed in between her loom and the edge of the painting and her stretching posture expresses her disquiet, frustration, and desire to escape. Tennyson’s poem contains the same claustrophobia:

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

Here, the contrast between the grey stone and the vibrant flowers outside heightens the Lady’s isolation from the living world. In the mirror we see the reflection of a pair of lovers walking, and also possibly a knight on horseback (Sir Launcelot) and thus the view symbolizes the love denied by the curse of confinement. Sir John Everett Millais’ Mariana tells a similar story, also inspired by a poem by Tennyson. Mariana suffers from the absence of love and waits in the “lonely moated grange” for her lover:

With blackest moss and flower-pots
Were thickly crusted, one and all;
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall (Tennyson).

The four lines that begin the poem thus set a scene of lifelessness; everything around Mariana crumbles while she is motionless. In fact living matter is literally decomposing and engulfed in damp moss in Mariana’s world. There are no active verbs in this description, accentuating the decay of the scene. Again, Mariana is a lady in an enclosed space like the Lady of Shalott, a woman seemingly “resigned to her fate,” and an embodiment of sexual frustration (Nunn 55). The figure of Mariana is pushed close to the front of the painting and the claustrophobia of the scene is heightened by the patterned wall that seems to blend with the view from the window — indeed, the prominent stained glass which obscures most of the window gives an even greater feeling of isolation. The outside world is literally obscured, and the mass of leaves and branches that are in view seem to advance towards the window, providing even more claustrophobia, and Mariana appears to be stretching from boredom and frustration as she stands up from her work. The signature refrains of these two women are interchangeable; we can hear Mariana exclaim, “I am half sick of shadows” just as we can hear the Lady of Shalott lament, “I am aweary, aweary/ I would that I were dead!”

Both Millais and Waterhouse took the poetic representation of the repressed woman, and turned it into a vivid painting. The detail of Mariana’s table, and the minute additions to the composition such as the leaves scattered both on her embroidery and across the floor, contribute to the realism of the scene. In parallel, the Lady of Shallot’s loom and the spools of colored thread at her feet show that Waterhouse, too, tried to make his domestic scene as detailed and realistic as possible. In addition, the medieval dress of both the Lady of Shallot and Mariana, although different colors and slightly different styles, accentuates the round figures of the women due to the low slung belts and heightens the sensuality of their stretching poses. Millais and Waterhouse provide a clear depiction of repressed sexuality.

Despite the overwhelming similarities between these paintings in terms of both subject matter and outward style, we must remember that Waterhouse painted his version of the Lady of Shalott in 1915, whereas Millais’ painting of Mariana was produced in 1851, right in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s active association. In 1848, three young Royal Academy students — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt — founded this secret Brotherhood. The trio were very young and eager artists, and collectively decided to pay greater attention to nature and honesty in their work. In their appeal to nature, the Brotherhood exhibits a reaction against the industrialization of Europe, and thus the Pre-Raphaelite Movement grows out of the Romanticism of the Early 19th Century; they wished to paint realistic scenes in the vibrant colors of life and nature. In Christ in the House of His Parents, Millais most certainly emphasizes the reality of his religious subject. The dirty carpenters shop, complete with wood shavings piled on the floor, coupled with the real, even ugly faces of the family of Jesus are startling to a viewer accustomed to sterilized, idealistic representations of the holy family. Indeed, Christ as carpenter seems to be quite the opposite of the common view of Christ as a king.

Yet, the Brotherhood officially came to an end in 1853, with each member following his own trajectory. A sonnet by Christina Rossetti’s sums up the scattering of the P.R.B as follows:

Hunt is yearning for the land of Cheops;
D.G Rossetti shuns the vulgar opticÉ
And he at last the champion great Millais,
Attaining academic opulence,
Winds up his signature with A.R.A
. So rivers merge in the perpetual sea;
So luscious fruit must fall when over-ripe;
And so consummated the P.R.B. (Barringer 135)

Hunt indeed traveled to the Middle East where he continued to paint; Rossetti rejected realism (the “vulgar optic”) in favor of a dreamy vision of Medieval romance, and Millais entered the establishment of the Royal Academy, forfeiting his status as a radical. The paintings and ideals of the PRB, then, can be seen as a series of prototypes and points of contrast for what would become a multiplicity of interrelated movements in the second half of the 19th Century, including the aesthetic movement and the classical movement.

At the end of the century we come across John William Waterhouse, a Late Victorian Romantic Painter, whose work displays the forces that shaped late Victorian art. His subjects range from classical, biblical, historical, and literary, and critics often note that a dreamy and romantic mood prevails in all of his work, despite the range of subject matter. As Christopher Wood writes in “Olympian Dreamers,” John William Waterhouse only had “one song to sing” yet he “sang it very beautifully” (224). In the following set of discussions, I will use Waterhouse’s work to explore the various trajectories of English art that grew from “The Germ” of the Pre-Raphaelites.


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Last modified 25 December 2006