John William Waterhouse, although known for his paintings of primarily classical subject matter, chose to paint his own versions of The Lady of Shallot, a topic favored by Pre-Raphaelite artists such as William Holman Hunt. Waterhouse painted three versions of The Lady of Shallot; in this one from 1888, the lady sits in the boat which takes her down the river and to her death. This depiction of the Lady of Shallot differs from the more frequent ones that show her in her chamber as she sees Lancelot in her mirror and declares that she has become "half sick of shadows" (Tennyson l.71). In this version by Waterhouse, she lets go of the chains mooring the boat to shore as she gazes forlornly at the water.
Her expression appears to be one of deep sadness and exhaustion. She sits on a heavily detailed tapestry, presumably by her own hand, featuring crowned lunettes. One shows knights on their horses, possibly Lancelot and his men, and the other shows a woman who looks remarkably like the Lady of Shallot herself standing in front of a castle. Three candles, one guttering and two extinguished, as well as a crucifix lay in the prow of the boat. Waterhouse does not paint the surrounding landscape with the same intense precision as Pre-Raphaelites such as Hunt or Millais, although it maintains the function of a believable setting. He utilizes looser brushstrokes, as seen especially in the trees in the upper right corner. It seems that Waterhouse "was less concerned with fine detail than any of his High Victorian forbears; his debt to Pre-Raphaelitism was one of subject matter and richness of colour rather than degree of finish" (Victorian Web). Waterhouse's depiction of the Lady of Shallot demonstrates not only the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite works which came before, but also Waterhouse's departure from the movement.
1. What difference does the choice to paint the moment of the Lady of Shallot's departure down the river make? Does this make the subject matter more sentimental? What effect does it have on the portrayal of the Lady of Shallot?
2. Christopher Newall claims that Waterhouse's depictions of young women often suggest "a mood of sexual invitation" (Victorian Web). Does this seem to be the case here? In what ways could she be deemed sexually inviting?
3. In what way does Waterhouse intend this work to be religious? How do the religious details, predominantly the crucifix, relate to the themes of the subject?
4. Waterhouse is "now regarded as the greatest late Victorian romantic painter after Burne-Jones" (Tate Catalogue 141). What evidence of Burne-Jones' influence appears here? What marks Waterhouse's departure from the Pre-Raphaelite movement? Does his work instead seem to be moving in the direction of a different movement, or did Waterhouse create his own artistic trend?
Last modified 1 December 2004