Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs brings to life a version of the Greek myth, Jason and the Argonauts, as told by William Morris in The Life and Death of Jason. In Morris' version, Hercules is left on the island of Lemnos after his companion, the handsome Hylas, wanders away from the ship. Hylas comes across a group of sea-nymphs who, enchanted by his beauty, seduce him into loving them, eventually dragging him into the sea water with them. The Argo leaves Hercules and Hylas behind on the island, and Hylas is never found.
Waterhouse's depiction, overtly sexual, positions the nymphs as femme fatales, the cause of Hylas's demise and eventual death. The naked flesh of the sea-nymphs, colored in the vibrant hues familiar in PRB works, radiate out of the canvas clearly drawing the attention of the viewer. The nymphs, bathed in light stand out, while the figure of Hylas almost blends into the background patches of color. The bodies of the nymphs, vibrant and alive contrast the darker figure of Hylas, perhaps suggesting his impending death. The nymphs seem unaware of their sexual nature, in that they do not attempt to cover or hide their bodies, while at the same time seeming fully in control of their sexual prowess coyly cocking their heads, reaching and grasping Hylas and toying with their hair. The long hair and rosy cheeks of the young girls recalls Sir John Everett Millais' Autumn Leaves, their youth a disturbing contrast to the sexual nature of the painting. This unsettling feeling continues in the confusion of fantasy and reality in this work. The depiction of nature is careful; attention is paid to depth and the interaction of the characters but with the purpose of creating mood and emotion, not reproducing nature. The figures of Hylas and the Nymphs seem less idealized than bodies in classical works -- the nymphs appearing thin with long necks, while the subject matter is clearly fictional. Waterhouse, who seems fascinated with the hypnotic power of beauty and youth, utilized the setting of mythology and fiction as an acceptable medium through which he could explore erotic forms. The female nude stands, adored by Waterhouse, as the ultimate expression of the organic and natural aesthetic. Women, capable of possessing power through their sexuality, become free from the domestic interior, embracing nature and themselves.
1. Waterhouse evoked intense emotion by positioning a solitary figure, Hylas against a large group of nymphs. Would this painting be as effective if Waterhouse had focused attention on a single nymph, as he focused on Circe or Ariadne in other works? What differing psychological aspects come out of a group versus an individual character?
2. William Morris, in his writings, sought to immerse the reader in another time and place, to intensely affect the reader with passion. This is clearly an important theme in Waterhouse's pictorial depiction of Morris's writing. Was it necessary, in order to evoke such passion, to remove the viewer from Victorian settings?
3. In Millais' Autumn Leaves and many other PRB works, the artists focused on the passage of time and the fleeting nature of beauty. Is this theme evident in Waterhouse's depiction of beauty?
Last modified 30 November 2004