In The Crystal Ball, we can see a large degree of Pre-Raphaelite influence in contrast to the Roman and classical influence that was typical of Waterhouse's early career. The Crystal Ball's placing the figure close to the picture plane resembles the composition of many Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The figure of the woman is also enclosed in an interior space, with a window serving as the only contact with the outside world, a composition that we have seen again and again. Similarly, the appearance of the lady herself is familiar; she is appropriately Pre-Raphaelite in her contemplative downward gaze and strong yet beautiful jaw. Waterhouse's use of a rich red color for the gown is also largely reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites' use of bold, bright colors. Thus, the lady in The Crystal Ball emerges as a typically contemplative Pre-Raphaelite woman in many ways.
Yet we are left to wonder what exactly the lady is contemplating. She could be contemplating the future or her destiny with the help of the crystal ball, but some aspects of the painting suggest something else. For example, the view from the window obscured by dark trees and the shadow cast across the lady's eyes create a rather sinister effect. Then, the crystal ball in the painting appears to contribute to a darker supernatural theme. Looking at Waterhouse's use of shape in the scene, circles are very prominent; the round table, the semicircular window and the arc of the chair contribute to the overall appearance of the room and seem to reflect not only the shape of the crystal ball but also its theme. In effect, Waterhouse's use of shape instills the entire painting with an air of magic. Furthermore, the skull perched on the table gives the painting a macabre touch. Thus, it appears as though the lady could be more sininster than a traditional contemplative woman. She may in fact be casting a spell which is further indicated by the open book, which could be a book of spells, next to the skull on the table. In this way, the young lady can be compared with the witch, Circe, another of Waterhouse's subjects.
1. What effect does height of the window, the base of which cuts the painting at the level of the lady's hands, have on the composition of the painting? Compare this with the circular mirror in Circe offering the cup to Ulysses.
2. What elements of the painting, apart from the dress, indicate that it is set in medieval times?
3. One of the owners of this painting had the skull painted out. Would this make the painting less macabre? Would it alter the theme of the painting?
4. Since the scene outside the window is dark, one wonders from where does the light come? Do you think that Waterhouse is using light deliberately and effectively?
5. Does The Crystal Ball have any mythical or literary sources?
Last modified 9 December 2006