Many people are familiar with John Waterhouse's 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott, which hangs in London's Tate Gallery. But what's the story behind this iconic oil-on-canvas, which regularly tops polls to find Britain's best painting? Read on to find out.
Lord Alfred Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
Waterhouse's inspiration for The Lady of Shalott comes from Lord Alfred Tennyson's
Arthurian-themed poem of the same name. The poem, first published in 1832, is
about a woman who lives alone in a tower on the island of Shalott, upstream
from King Arthur's castle at Camelot.
Because of a curse, the Lady must stay in her tower and
weave pictures of the outside world by looking only at the reflection in a
mirror. One day she catches a reflected glimpse of the knight Lancelot, who is
so handsome she cannot resist looking at him directly through the window.
Smitten, the Lady leaves her tower and rides a boat down to
Camelot, in an attempt to meet Lancelot, singing 'her last song' along the way.
But as a consequence of her curse, the Lady tragically dies before she gets to
Camelot and sees Lancelot again.
John Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott
John Waterhouse's The
Lady of Shallot follows a theme evident in many of his other artworks, in
that it focuses on the plight of a beautiful and tragic woman. But rather than
trying to convey the entire story of The
Lady of Shalott, Waterhouse's painting illustrates the following lines from
part IV of Tennyson's poem:
Poem sourced from: Poetry Foundation.
However, John Waterhouse's Tennyson inspired works didn’t
end in 1888, as the artist would go on to paint a further two episodes from The Lady of Shalott poem.
In 1894, he painted the Lady when she first looks at
Lancelot from the window. Then, in 1915, Waterhouse painted the Lady as she sat
weaving at her loom. These paintings are hung at the City Art Gallery in Leeds
and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, respectively.
Plus, according to Waterhouse's official biographer, Anthony
Hobson, the artist owned a copy of Tennyson's complete works and covered every
blank page with pencil sketches for paintings
Above: Ophelia, a painting by the leading Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir
John Everett Millais, based on a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Image from:
The works of Tennyson were a favourite amongst the Pre-Raphaelites
– a group of English painters, poets and critics that flourished in the
mid-nineteenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to reform art by rejecting
the mechanistic approach to painting, which had remained popular because of
renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael.
Many art critics have commented that, in many ways,
Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott is
similar in style to works by the Pre-Raphaelites. For example, the pose in
which Waterhouse paints the Lady and the clothes she wears are typical of what
you might expect to see in a Pre-Raphaelites painting.
However what really sets Waterhouse's classic painting apart
as an ode to the Pre-Raphaelite tradition is its use of symbolism to convey the
story. For example, there are three candles on the boat but only one is lit,
which symbolises the life of the Lady nearing its end. In addition, the Lady's
mouth is slightly ajar to suggest that she is singing 'her last song'.
The Landscape and Model
Above: An example of the beautiful Somerset landscape that may have
provided John Waterhouse with inspiration for The Lady of Shallot. Image from: crabchick.
Although the landscape that served as Waterhouse's
inspiration is unknown, the artist liked to visit both Somerset and Devon often.
As such, many critics believe that the lush countryside of both counties
influenced Waterhouse's depiction of the landscape in the The Lady of Shallot.
John Waterhouse always used models in his work, as it helped
him to capture the shapes and positons of the figures in his paintings. Some believe
the model that Waterhouse used for The
Lady of Shallot is his wife, Esther Kenworthy Waterhouse. Others, however, believe
it to be a woman called Jennifer Flora, who modelled for the artist regularly
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Feature image credit: Helena