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.
The Middle-Ages from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to John William Waterhouse
In addition to painting the Lady of Shalott, many of Waterhouse’s other works depict scenes from the era of the Middle Ages, spanning from the Arthurian age through the 14th Century. Fair Rosamund, for example, shows the mistress of Henry II waiting, presumably for her lover, looking out from a window. She, much like the Lady of Shalott, is pictured with a weaving of her fantasy: a chivalrous knight. It appears that the idea of weaving as a symbol of the waiting woman — a woman weaves to compensate for a stagnant life — is a dominant image in the tragedy of femininity in its reliance on men and romance. Interestingly, Rosamund’s weaving is complete and she now looks out in anticipation of romantic fulfillment. Unlike Millais’ depiction of Mariana, and Waterhouse’s portrayal of the Lady of Shalott at the loom, Rosamund seems to be much more interactive with the outside world; her veil blows in the wind, and she leans our from the window, instead of gazing at the walls of her own confinement.
The Middle Ages occupies a prominent position in the Victorian list of artistic subject matter. In the 1850s, Rossetti evokes a richly colorful, chivalric and nostalgic representation of the Middle Ages in a set of watercolor paintings inspired by the Morte d’Arthur and the works of Dante. In Victorian Painting, Treuherz notes that Rossetti turned to watercolors because he “lacked the technical facility” in oils possessed by Millais (100). However, Rossetti’s sketchy use of watercolor evokes a dream-like atmosphere, thus Rossetti’s choice of medium enhances these works. These fanciful representations are often claustrophobic, painted in “jewel-like colours” and highly decorative (Barringer 45). For example, in The Wedding of St. George and the Princess Sabra Rossetti’s composition is densely packed and the pictorial space is flattened with the figures placed in the same plane despite the three dimensional cues. These traits echo the conventions of the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period. Interestingly, the line of bells appears in several illuminated manuscripts from the medieval Period, notably “The Hours of Isabelle of France” which was owned by Ruskin, an early friend of Rossetti. These bells also provide a link between music and visual art; it is as if we are supposed to hear the music surrounding the scene. Another version of The Wedding of St. George is framed by two trumpeters. Again, Rossetti expresses the relationship between “art and music, sight and sound” (Barringer 46).
In Waterhouse’s depictions of the medieval period, however, there seems to be an emphasis on the tragedy and danger of love, as opposed to mere nostalgia for the chivalry of the past. In Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion, we see the moment that leads to the tragic love triangle of Tristan, Isolde and King Mark. In this painting, the characterization of Isolde is more important than that of Tristan: her veil is blowing in the wind, and its white brightness puts her at the center of attention. Furthermore, Isolde’s face is illuminated while Tristan’s is in shadow. She leans forward slightly, whereas Tristan rests back on one leg. In short, Isolde is the expressive figure.
In Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca, we again see the fate of lovers in the Medieval Period, this time in the Italian setting inspired by Dante’s poetry. This story is linked with the English Middle Ages in that the lovers read (as depicted in the first of Rossetti’s three scenes) the Arthurian Romance of Launcelot and Guinivere, which inspires their own kiss:
One day, to pass the time away, we read of Lancelot — how love had overcome him. We were alone, and we suspected nothing.
And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale, and yet one point alone defeated us.
When we had read how the desired smile was kissed by one who was so true a lover, this one, who never shall be parted from me,
while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth. A Gallehault indeed, that book and he who wrote it, too; that day we read no more. (Dante)
The representation of medieval love became a popular subject in the years after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s existence. As Christopher Wood writes in Victorian Painting in Oils and Watercolours, Anthony Frederick Sandys was one of Rossetti’s “most devoted followers” (42). Indeed, among his works are many medieval subjects such as Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor.
Queen Eleanor is a startlingly bright painting. Sandys technique is flawless in his creation of botanically accurate plants, echoing Pre-Raphaelite ideal of truth to nature. Furthermore, the composition of the painting, with the figure of Eleanor pushed up against the frame of view emphasizes her agency and Sandys captures her in mid-movement. Eleanor, the wife of Henry II is reputed to have murdered his mistress, Rosamund. Thus, Sandys depicts her carrying a dagger, a cup of poison, and the piece of red string that was supposed to lead Eleanor through a maze to reach Rosamund’s chamber. Her gaze, although averted, is purposeful and her red hair blowing in the wind echoes Rossetti’s portraits of feminine agency, such as the flame-haired “Helen of Troy” who played a large role in the motivation of the Trojan War.
Looking at La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Waterhouse, we clearly see a similar portrayal of the Medieval woman as a femme fatale. Here, a knight appears to be rescuing a beautiful maiden, yet upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the girl is in fact ensnaring him. She possesses an alluring and dangerously hypnotic beauty, giving her power over the epitome of masculinity and strength — the knight in armor. By comparing Waterhouse’s powerfully alluring women to those of Rossetti, such as “Helen of Troy” we can trace Waterhouse’s vivid portrayals of medieval romance, tragedy, and the femme fatale back to a Rossettian prototype.
Last modified 25 December 2006