Waterhouse and Classicism (I)

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).

Waterhouse and Classicism (II): Classicism in the Aesthetic Movement

The relationship between the classical movement and the aesthetic movement is an ambiguous one. “Definition at times seems highly elusive, as some artists seem to have affinities with several groups at once — with the classical movement, the aesthetic movement, and the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism” (Olympian Dreamers 23). It seems that a tidy way to put it would be to say that the classical movement was a component in the aesthetic movement along with late Pre-Raphaelitism. Indeed, many painters shuttle between classical subjects and Pre-Raphaelite ideals, such as Albert Joseph Moore.

As Christopher Wood writes, “the Classical and Aesthetic Movements meet” in Moore (Victorian Painting 62). Moore's classical influence remains an ideal of beauty rather than of subject matter. Pomegranates for example, depicts three girls in classical costume standing next to a cabinet decorated with geometric designs. The only subject that can be extracted is the bowl of pomegranates, the namesake of the painting. Since Pomegranates is just one of many works to take seemingly trivial names that reflect color schemes or small objects in the paintings, it emerges that Moore is not interested in imposing narrative content on his art. Moore certainly developed decorative type of painting in which we find “everything from a Greek robe to a Chinese vase to a modern violin” (Victorian Painting 156).

Moore’s Apples shows his tendency towards the abstractly aesthetic painting. Despite the sleeping women and the classical setting, Moore simply names the painting Apples after the two tiny pieces of fruit in the bottom left corner of the painting. This seemingly random naming, and indeed the randomness of the apples’ presence, indicates that there is no story as work, the painting only exists for its transient beauty. Moore directs his devotion only to aspects of painting such as the balance of composition and color. The poses of the two sleeping women compliment each other in facing inwards from opposite ends of a couch; although the balance of their robes is thrown off by the greater block of light blue on the left, the blue vases compensate, bringing the distribution of color back to symmetry; even the frieze-like composition and even distribution of flowers and shapes on the wall behind the figures contributes the visual harmonies. Moore’s Apples can in fact almost be confused with Waterhouse’s Dolce far Niente. This painting is has the same flattened composition with the couch and screen-like background, and echoes the decorative strategy of Moore in the placement of various aesthetic objects across the canvas. The shape of the peacock feathers echoes that of the plants in the background, and the rich color and texture of the feathers further interacts with that of the leopard skin to appeal to the viewers senses and the luxurious quality of the scene.

In Diogenes we again see the force of the aesthetic ideal on Waterhouse. Diogenes, an ancient ascetic philosopher dressed in dull rags, contrasts heavily with the richly decorated, colorful, frivolous looking young ladies on the steps. Yet, amidst the accurate classical architecture and symbolically constructed costumes, Waterhouse places strangely Japanese parasols. Indeed, it appears as though Waterhouse may have chosen this round sun shade to echo and contrast with the circular tub in which Diogenes sits. The seemingly eclectic mix of influences here — the classical and the Japanese — are in keeping with the emergence of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1860s; here we can trace the aesthetic trajectory that grew in the years after the P.R.B. disbanded.

The sometimes bizarre associations of decorative objects an elements in paintings of the aesthetic movement indicates the departure from truth in painting that was so integral to the Pre-Raphaelites’ early desires. Treuherz notes that “Aestheticism rejected both the mimetic and the didactic roles of art and placed supreme emphasis on the intrinsic worth of formal values such a colour, line, tone and pattern. It thus discarded the genre, humour, narrative and anecdote of the early Victorians, and also ran counter to Ruskin’s interpretation of art as an imitator of nature and a means to convey moral and spiritual truths” (131). Looking back Rossetti, an original Pre-Raphaelite, we see that many of his portraits aspire to aesthetic designs. His ladies are often decked in jewels and other decorative accessories, and the gilt frames inscribed with his poetry heighten the appearance of these portraits as decorative, artistic objects. Bocca Bacciata, for example, showcases fine jewelry, hair accessories, and Rossetti also places an apple on the table in front of the lady for no apparent reason. His portrait named “Veronica Verones” is equally striking in its appeal to the senses: the woman’s clothes have a rich velvet texture, and Rossetti includes another of the senses — sound — through placing both a singing bird and a violin in the painting. Perhaps, then, we can look at Rossetti’s later portraits as prototypes for the subjectless, aesthetic portrait of the genre produced by Moore, with Moore taking the idea to a classical extreme.

Yet, another difference between Rossetti’s pictures of women and those of Moore comes through in the fact that Rossetti tended to paint the femme fatale figure whereas Moore paints sweet-faced, anonymous classical beauties. Edward Burne-Jones, another champion of the aesthetic movement, also painted such anonymously beautiful women. For example, in “The Golden Stairs” the each lady is a slight variation of the same pale skinned girl with reddish hair. This painting is subjectless, a dream, which places it firmly in the aesthetic trajectory. Burne Jones’s women are strikingly opposite from the strong-features women that the Pre-Raphaelites admired. Indeed, one of the favorite Pre-Raphaelite models was Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris) who was “tall in an era that prized small stature. She was dark at a time when the fair prevailed. The firm planes and sharp angles of her face seemed forged in defiance of conventional prettiness” (Mancoff 1). As Rossetti said of his model, “Beauty like hers is genius,” and in such admiration perhaps we see the love of truth and reality, rather than love for the unreal and ethereal beauty as displayed by Burne-Jones.

Last modified 25 December 2006