Waterhouse’s subjects are clearly not limited to Medieval Subjects. Indeed, after 1890 he turned predominantly to classical subjects, many taken from Greek myth. In Hylas and the Nymphs, Christopher Wood claims that Waterhouse achieved his “greatest classical picture” (Olympian Dreamers 224). Here, as for many of his medieval paintings, Waterhouse chooses a moment of feminine agency; in this case, the Nymphs lure Hylas into their lily pond. He is the victim to their desires, and as such Waterhouse subordinates him in the painting — Hylas faces away from the viewer, and the shadow cast across his face evokes a marked contrast with the illuminated faces and bodies of the Nymphs. Their hauntingly identical faces, and intensely dark and wide-eyed gazes, instill the girls with a dangerous sensuality.

Since Waterhouse dedicates himself to classical mythology, it seems appropriate that Christopher Wood writes that, “Among painters of the later Victorian and Edwardian periods, it was Waterhouse who made the greatest contribution to the classical movement” (Olympian Dreamers 224). The classical movement began in the 1860s as “a reaction against the predominance of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites” (15). It is important to know that Waterhouse was raised in Italy, and he is just one of many artists, such as Leighton and Alma-Tadema to name a few, with continental experience. Thus, it seems appropriate that in their work we see a renewed interest in the Italian Renaissance, and most importantly a fascination for “those great classical traditions that lay behind it” (21). Greek sculpture and classical myth became strong forces in the works of these artists and the classical movement also revived the nude that is markedly absent in Pre-Raphaelite work. As Wood observes, the classical movement “brought back the nude after its banishment in the mid-Victorian moral ice age” (Victorian Painting 50).

Yet, Waterhouse’s romantic, sensual and mysterious imagining of classical myth sets him apart from many other Olympian Dreamers. For instance, Frederic Lord Leighton, without whom “it would be difficult to argue that there was a classical movement at all,” exhibits a classicism that contrasts with that of Waterhouse (Olympian Dreamers 33). Leighton received his artistic education in continental Europe, in cities such as Berlin, Paris, Florence, Brussels and Rome. Thus it is easy to see how his style became “a completely personal fusion of Renaissance and classical traditions, overlaid with a sensibility and a colour sense that is entirely Victorian” (Olympain Dreamers 35). The luminous “Flaming June” is striking in its deliberate use of color: the shade of the woman’s robe blends with that of the sunset behind her, instilling the painting with a dreamy, other-worldly atmosphere. The subject is most clearly classical due to the style of dress and the composition of lady on a balcony with the open sea in the background. Yet the curled sleeping figure, and the way she is pushed close to the front of the painting, shows its Victorian origins.

Leighton, like Waterhouse, takes classical myth as subject matter, yet with very different results. In his vision of “Deadalus and Icarus” for example, the young Icarus stands in a graceful “self-consciously elegant pose,” and along with his dreamy gaze he seems to be meditating on his own beauty (Olympian Dreamers 50). At this point in the story, Deadalus fits his son with the fateful wings he so desires and I imagine that Waterhouse would have painted Icarus with an ambitious gleam in his eye, to echo the spirit of the story that is so closely associated with the dangers of curiosity and ambition. In Leighton’s painting, the contrast between the crouching darker skinned Daedalus and the light and smooth, posing Icarus, further heightens the effect that Icarus is not living, but a statue. In addition, the cloth billowing behind the statuesque figure looks far too contrived to be a spontaneous result of wind. It looks heavy and static, despite Leighton’s obvious attention to the details of the folds, hinting that Leighton probably painted the fabric resting on a solid surface, as opposed to actually blowing in the air. I agree with would in saying that his paintings are indeed “too academic and frigid” (Olympian Dreamers 51).

Similarly, even when the subject is a dangerous femme fatale, Leighton fails to achieve such characterization in terms of emotion and expression. For example, his portrait of Clytemnestra, who murders her own husband to avenge her daughter’s sacrifice, lacks any feeling. We can see how Leighton chose his composition and the pose of Clytemnestra carefully: she stands above the viewer, almost towering above us; she is a sturdy, formidable and statuesque figure. Yet her face is, for want of a better word, boring. Like Icarus, she looks like a lifeless statue; Leighton does not achieve the representation of a distraught mother plotting revenge.

I extend a similar reading to the works of Alma-Tadema who is named as one of the primary forces in the English classical movement, despite the fact that he is of Dutch origin rather than English. His pictures are exquisite in color and detail, for example, The Coign of Vantage depicts three ladies on an iridescent balcony, looking over the edge to the water far below. This painting uses perspective and distance dramatically, yet the ladies in the foreground are almost too perfect to be interesting. They have sweet, cherub-like faces, willing smiles, and they arrange themselves and their robes perfectly across the bright marble. In Leighton’s depictions of classical myth, and in Alma-Tadema’s scenes of classical life and leisure, the artists’ focus their concern on the beauty of the figures, rather than their inner characters.

It could be argued, however, that Waterhouse’s versions of classical myth are in fact deeply concerned with the beauty of the figures, in that he often depicts the non-violent parts of those tales that contain a highly dramatic or brutal phase. Looking at “St Eulalia,” the evasion of violence is most artfully achieved: the martyrdom of the young Spanish girl was an especially gruesome one, yet instead of painting a mutilated body, Waterhouse paints a smooth-skinned semi-nude figure. The spread of her auburn hair and the arrangement of red cloth that partially covers the body subtly suggest the blood and gore that Waterhouse omits. Thus, the most magical element of the painting — the snow falling — takes the foreground. Again, in The Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus, Waterhouse enters the story after the frenzy of the murder committed by the Thracian women. In Waterhouse’s vision, the haunting face of Orpheus floats alongside his instrument, hinting at events past; this is a scene of haunting and nostaligic atmosphere, “recalling the story rather than confronting it” (Olympian Dreamers 26).


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Last modified 25 December 2006