In Victorian era, most women who need to depend on their husband. The women in the period were probably suffering from such circumstances. They need to get married with men, and their work were mostly housework at home. The lifestyle which they have is obviously different from the one in modern society. From paintings by John William Waterhouse, these aspects are revealed slightly in his contexts. He was fond of literary topic, such as women's tragedy, femmes fatales, and Arthurian literature. In The Lady of Shalott (1888) by Waterhouse, he represents Shalott’s death because she sees the man with whom she falls in love. She “suffers under an undisclosed curse”. (Riggs, 1998) Waterhouse were fond of Tennyson’s poem, and he created three scenes of The Lady of Shalott in total. Furthermore, he painted the tragic woman, Ophelia in Hamlet three times. This blog post will show two paintings of women by Waterhouse and discuss tragic figure of women in the paintings.
He is classified into one of the artists in Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which is defined as a group of English artist to revive the style before Raphael, and the other members are included Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. For Waterhouse’s background, in 1849, he was born in Roma where his father was a painter. In 1850s, he studied at Royal Academy in England and assisted his father there. After he lived in Primrose Hill Studio, he continued to create more works. His paintings are fond by rich buyers, particularly, According to Kerr, he did not have difficulty with money. (Kerr, The Art and Life of John William Waterhouse) For his personal comments, it remains a few, and some of letters seem to exist. (Tippi, 40)
The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888
When he was tired of being criticised paintings in Greek and Roman mythologies, and Christian history, he tried to highlight classical and modern literary works. (Upstone, 37) In 1889, Waterhouse created the painting The Lady of Shalott which was based on the same title of Tennyson’s poem. Tennyson’s poem is also based on Arthurian legend. His aimed was to highlight Arthurian literature again instead of Christian history, Christian thoughts and Greek and Roman myth. Waterhouse’s picture is concerned about the scene;
And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance -
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
For Tennyson’s poem, Upstone explains the poem "The Lady of Shallot was a fairy lady engaged in wearving 'a magic web', the tapestry itself having magical properties" (38). She needs to use a mirror all the time when she looks outside. Her domestic world is only the building where she lives; on the other hand, the outside world is always weaving by the mirror. According to Upstone, three candles in front of the Lady are the implication which the Lady faces a dreadful fate, death. There are two small swallows which may be implied that she is going to the new world (38-9). In this case, the new world could be said death. Because of these elements, it is slightly implied a religious aspect as Christianity. This point is different from Tennyson’s poem. The painting became popular in the period; however, Upstone suggests that Waterhouse add his own interpretation into the work. He describes in dark tone in the background, in contrast, he might represent her innocence in the way of dressing in white. The tapestry is especially beautiful colour of pink.
Furthermore, the story has another interruption from Feminism view. The Lady could be said the women’s symbol which stays at home and does housework until she dies. In this idea, the building where she lives is thought her “home”. Once the Lady knows another world and tries to escape from “the home”, she should die. She might be restricted by “the home”.
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, 1889
Another painting of Waterhouse’s works has the same theme of death. Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she mostly goes mad. It is because not only her boyfriend Hamlet rejects her, but also her father was killed by her boyfriend. She may choose to go the place in danger, and “falls into the stream while picking flowers.” (Lupton, Thinking with Shakespeare) The flowers around her are imagined her death. Many artists described the scene when she dies in the stream, in contrast, Waterhouse’s first version Ophelia was obviously no water. (Tippi, 22) Waterhouse represent her deathly emotion in the picture. Her face might show her abandoned feeling for Hamlet. Her eyes are strongly gazing at viewer, and her left hand grasps the glasses and her hair powerfully. (Moore, 2007) In Hamlet, she is broken at last, however, in this picture, she is thought still sane.There are Waterhouse perhaps express both She could face the death in Waterhouse vision even though her death is suicide or not. Shakespeare’s Ophelia is sometimes criticised her weakness, and she is probably an unrealistic woman. Even in Shakespeare’s period, women could be quite stronger than original Ophelia. On the other hand, Waterhouse might success to make Ophelia more realistic.
The two ladies who Waterhouse described suffer under their unfortunate circumstance. One is because she has curse to see outside by the mirror. Another is because Two stories were made in different period, however, the treatment of female is thought almost the same. These pictures could show tragedies by women who get struggled by men.
Lupton, J. “Methods in Madness: Thinking with Ophelia” Thinking with Shakespeare. Web. 09. Dec. 2013
Moore, M. “Waterhouse's Versions of Ophelia” English and History of Art 151. Brown University. 2007. Web. 10. Dec. 2013
Riggs, T.“Summary” John William Waterhouse. Tate. 1998. Web. 10. Dec. 2013
Trippi, P. J. W. Waterhouse. London: Phaidon Press Limited. 2002
Upstone, R. J.M. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Paphaelite the Netherlands: Groniger Muserm Groninegn. 2008