In John William Waterhouse's oil painting A Mermaid painted in 1901, the artist creates a setting of striking and fantastical eroticism and beauty by depicting an alluring, voluptuous young woman in the form of a mermaid upon the beach of a rocky cove. Unlike many of his other works, Waterhouse does not paint a specific scene from literature or mythology here, but one derived from imagination or local lore. As a result, there is little narrative present in this work. Waterhouse creates a situation in which the beautiful mermaid and her vulnerability and accessibility to the onlooker act as the uncontested focus of the composition. To begin with, this female creature has no legs, but only fins. Thus, because she sits out of the water here and upon the rocks, Waterhouse presents her as literally immobilized and therefore as entirely defenseless and exposed. Not only does he depict this creature as an actual "fish out of water" in this way, he also has her looking off absently into the distance as she combs her extraordinarily long, luxurious hair. In incorporating this particular stance for his character, the artist creates a female figure that fully invites the gaze of the observer—specifically that of the male. She not only draws attention to her own femininity and beauty by combing her hair here, but appears either oblivious or unconcerned by any potential onlooker's presence. In this painting therefore, Waterhouse has successfully created an aesthetically pleasing composition based in titillation and mystery by rightly relying on the fact that this alluring, enigmatic yet vulnerable and even immobilized female will serve as the ideal subject of the male onlooker's gaze.

Questions

1. How does the gaze of this female character compare with that of Rossetti's female subject in his Lady Lilith? Both invite the onlooker's gaze, but do they do so in differing ways or with differing expressions? If so, what is the effect and the artist's motivation?

2. Do you perceive her expression as one reacting to the presence of another here? Does Waterhouse in any way imply that there is someone else in the cove? How and why?

3. Would Waterhouse have depicted this unclothed female character in such a way as a human woman instead of a mermaid? Why exactly was fantastic nudity and eroticism seen as more acceptable than the realistic?

4. Who was Waterhouse painting for when he created this composition? Who would he sell it to and where would such a painting as this most likely hang in the year 1901?


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Last modified 30 November 2004