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Waterhouse: Expert on Women?

The art of John William Waterhouse is not only admired for the sensual beauty of its feminine subjects but also for its ability to connect the viewer to the world of myth and legend. His paintings on classical, historical and literary themes, often trafic in nature, are known worldwide as icons of femininity.

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849, the son of two English artists whose creative pursuits brought them to Italy. In the 1850s, however, his family returned to England, eventually taking up residence in South Kensington in England. “Nino,” as he was called by his family, assisted in his father’s art studio and developed his talent for painting. In 1870, after several attempts at admission, Waterhouse was accepted to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The Royal Academy, or RA, was founded in 1768 for the purpose of cultivating and improving the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. One of the functions of the RA was the instruction of young artists of exceptional talent. Each summer, the RA exhibited the work of its students and members for fellow artists, critics, collectors and the general public.

Waterhouse's first submission to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition of 1874 was entitled Sleep and His Half-Brother Death. This allegorical portrayal of a classical theme won him the praise of critics, allowing him to secure inclusion in subsequent exhibits. By 1878, Waterhouse had sold enough paintings to afford to lease a studio at Primrose Hill in London.

Waterhouse's residence at Primrose Hill allowed him to interact with artists trained outside the Royal Academy, in particular the Newlyn colony of artists, who practiced the French style of “plein air” painting in which subjects were painted outdoors in their natural surroundings. It is Waterhouse’s association with the Newlyn colony that is probably responsible for the skill with which he depicted the natural scenery in his paintings.

In his 30s, Waterhouse continued to create and exhibit paintings on classical themes, while at the same time experimenting successfully with new styles and subjects, thereby becoming a “name to watch” in the British art world. At the age of 34, Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art instructor. By 1885, Waterhouse had become an Associate of the Royal Academy and was a member of the British art elite.

In 1895, Waterhouse was elected to the status of full Academician at the Royal Academy. He taught classes at the St. John's Wood Art School and served on the RA Council. Waterhouse’s success allowed him to purchase a more elegant home in St. John’s Wood where he continued to pursue his vision of womanhood, later shifting to themes of Arthurian legend. In his lifetime, Waterhouse produced more than 200 paintings depicting classical mythology and historical and literary subjects, particularly those of Roman mythology and allegories of classic English poetry such as that written by Keats and Tennyson. In the 1900s, Waterhouse also added the portraits of wealthy families to his repertoire of talents.

Little is known about Waterhouse’s personal life – he left no diaries or journals and was reputed to be a man of few words. He seems to have been a procrastinator, always rushing to complete his work for impending exhibitions. Several of Waterhouse’s canvasses contain pentimenti – images of underlying xxx – suggesting that he did not plan his compositions but created or revised them spontaneously. The craquelure of many of Waterhouse’s works – small cracks in the paint that appear over time – are most likely due to successive thick layers of paint that were not allowed to dry properly. His canvasses were often damaged and of inferior quality as well as unevenly edged. One wonders if details of this sort lost importance to Waterhouse in the passion of creative painting.

In his early career, Waterhouse used friends and family members as subjects in his paintings, particularly his sister, half-sister, and his wife. Anyone who is familiar with Waterhouse’s body of work will easily recognize at least two women who appear numerous times in his paintings. One of the models who bears the beauty of adolesence is featured in La Belle Dame Sans Merci and A Mermaid, among many others. The other model, who appears in Lady of Shallot, possesses the mature beauty of womanhood. The faces of these models as well as others filled Waterhouse’s sketchbooks and canvasses over the years as he sought to depict the essence of womanhood.

Waterhouse is one of the rare artists who enjoyed admiration and financial success during his lifetime. He continued to paint until his death of cancer in 1917 at the age of 68. Waterhouse became a significant influence on many of the Pre-Raphaelites. Today, many of his works are owned privately but many of his most well-known creations are displayed in public galleries throughout the world.

To see the works of John William Waterhouse in chronological order, click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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