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.


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Last modified 25 December 2006