William Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shalott depicts the climactic, fateful moment in Tennyson's poem when the Lady, while weaving the tapestry in her tower, sees Sir Lancelot in the mirror and looks out of the forbidden window, causing the curse to descend upon her. Hunt paints with exceedingly rich and brilliant colors which have a dramatic effect, but they do not necessarily coincide with the goals of his landscape paintings; that is, to convey the truth of nature through exacting color and attention to minute details. In this painting, the reflection of the outside world in the mirror reveals a landscape which is hardly realistic. The trees, grass and figures are painted only in yellows, grays and blues.
Hunt also departs from his former interest in portraying realistic scenes with relevant typology and symbolism that emphasizes moral themes. The circular frames on either side of the mirror feature images from scripture and mythology. The scene on the left represents the Madonna and Child and the scene on the right represents Hercules in the garden of Hesperides. Aside from these friezes with figures in rigid poses, the rest of the painting is marked by an abundance of movement and activity. Even the two birds above the right foreground are painted in mid-flight. The figures in this painting, especially Hercules and the Lady herself, are strong, sculpted robust forms, typical of Greek Classical sculpture. The Lady is placed in a chaotic scene of swirling yarn which she appears to be tangled up in. Perhaps one of her most striking features is her explosion of wavy, windblown hair. This sense of chaos extends to the top of the painting where angelic bodies or allegorical figures are positioned randomly; there is no symmetry or formality about the compositions in which they appear. It is ambiguous as to whether the figures at the top of the painting refer to the Christian tradition or to mythology. In addition to employing contradictory motifs and symbols, the objects and details of the painting are drawn from a variety of sources: the samovar or oil lamp in the bottom right corner, the sandals in the foreground, and the floor tiles with exotic animal designs.
How do the types of the Madonna and Hercules convey the themes of the subject matter if at all? Why would Hunt place the Lady of Shalott between two opposing and seemingly totally unrelated figures?
Why did Hunt paint the landscape scene in the mirror in colors which do not imitate nature? Was he making a statement about the nature of a reality which is only a reflection? Or was the reason merely his failing eyesight?
Why does Hunt combine so many eclectic elements — the religious, the mythological, the exotic? Given his use of contradictory motifs, does Hunt accurately portray reality with a meaningful significance as in his earlier works?
The Lady of Shalott was a popular subject matter among other Pre-Raphaelite painters. Does the Lady's strong limbs and active stance give her more agency than a painting in which she is discontent and "half sick of shadows"?
What mood does Hunt wish to convey in his representation of this scene? Are his aims at all religious and moralizing or purely aesthetic?
Last modified 21 September 2004