William Holman Hunt captures the Lady of Shalott in the middle of her unraveling tapestry, just after her stolen glance at Camelot. Hunt places the viewer in the same position as Camelot, and the main light in the composition comes from here. There is enough light to illuminate the ruined tapestry, the reflection of Camelot in the mirror, and some shadowy figures painted on the walls of Lady Shalott's chamber. To her left is a humble Virgin Mary with her child and to her right is Hercules, picking apples but gazing at the Lady. There are shadows of Camelot's columns cast on the floor and on the Lady of Shalott's upper body.
Hunt's portrayal of the Lady of Shalott honors Tennyson's poem, in which she laments she is "half sick of shadows." She has until now only gazed at mere shadows of reality in the round mirror behind her. Her figure in the foreground looks at the damage she has done, but her reflection in the mirror points to the source of her undoing. Her reflection turns toward Lancelot. The figure of the Lady seems almost overwhelmed by the color and detail around her. The weaving on the carpet, the spiraling legs of the tapestry, the series of circles framing the watchful pictures on the wall, the flying threads, and the twist of the Lady's body create a frenzied sense of movement that mirrors the downward spiral of the Lady's work, conscience, and life. Because she gave in to temptation, the mirror cracks, her tapestry unravels, and the Lady, fallen and weak, will die.
1. The Lady of Shalott watches the world in a mirror and creates beautiful tapestries because of her spiritual purity. When she falls, her work unravels. What implications does this have for the artist, or for art in general? Did Hunt see this story as a sort of Pre-Raphaelite manifesto?
2. Rather than showing a conversion to spiritual and moral enlightenment, Hunt here paints a story of a woman's conversion to human weakness. How do Hunt's strategies in conveying meaning or narrative compare to those in the Awakening Conscience and The Shadow of Death?
3. The Lady is caught between the Virgin Mary and Hercules. Does Hunt successfully convey religious typology in the painting, or is the painting only an illustration of the narrative and moral of Tennyson's poem?
Last modified 21 September 2004