John William Waterhouse was born in 1849 in Rome, where his parents, both painters, lived for some years.
In the 1850s the family returned to England. Before entering the Royal Academy schools in 1870, Waterhouse assisted his father in his studio. His early works were of classical themes in the spirit of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton, and were exhibited at the Royal Academy the Society of British Artists and the Dudley Gallery. In the late 1870s and the 1880s, Waterhouse made several trips to Italy, where he painted genre scenes.
After his marriage in 1883 to Esther Kenworthy, Waterhouse took up residence at the Primrose Hill Studios (number 3, and later, number 6).
Subsequently he began to depict more poetical subjects, especially from Tennyson, and later, Homer. By 1891 Waterhouse had discovered a beautiful model who features in most of his important pictures after that date. Her name is not known. Waterhouse became ARA in 1885 and RA in 1895. By this period his reputation was great, and his art was compared to that of Burne-Jones and Leighton.
While very much a classical painter, John William Waterhouse has been often classed as a Pre-Raphaelite, because of his dedication to beautiful girls in the Pre-Raphaelite style, fondness for the idea of the femme fatale, and realism.
His most Pre-Raphaelite painting is The Lady of Shalott (1888), and some of his other important paintings are The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883), Consulting the Oracle (1884), Saint Eulalia (1885), Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), A Mermaid (1901), and Echo and Narcissus (1903).
Early in his career Waterhouse established his style. It changed little, but he continually refined it, and his beautiful ladies were recognisable flesh and blood, with superb skin tones. He also painted a few excellent portraits of women, some of them being of the members of the Henderson family of Lord Faringdon, of Buscot Park fame.
A lot of the pictures spent many years on the walls of prosperous Home Counties families, but the problems of Lloyds of London have, in many cases, forced their sale, just as their real value, and the artistic worth of Waterhouse’s achievement has come to be realised.
John William Waterhouse was half a generation later than the other classicists, continuing well into the twentieth century, had a great influence on younger artists. Among his followers may be put Frank Dicksee, Arthur Hacker, Herbert James Draper and Byam Shaw.
The Tate Gallery has St. Eulalia, and also in London is A Mermaid, Waterhouse’s Diploma picture at the Royal Academy. In the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool is Echo and Narcissus, which captures the very essence of narcissism, and at Manchester is Hylas and the Water Nymphs.
The Enchanted Garden and The Decameron are at the Lady Lever Gallery. Penelope and the Suitors is in Aberdeen. In Australia, The Favourites of the Emperor Honarius and Circe are at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and Ulysses and the Sirens is at the National Gallery of Australia.
John William Waterhouse became ARA in 1885, and a full RA in 1895. In 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy at the parish church in Ealing in West London. There were no children. The newly married couple lived in a purpose built artistic colony in Primrose Hill, fellow residents, and close friends were Logsdail, and Maurice Greiffenhagen and his wife.
The houses had studios. Around 1900 Waterhouse and his wife moved to St John’s Wood, evidence of both increasing prosperity, and the need to be part of the artistic community. He was I think one of the most accomplished British painters of the second half of the 19th century. He shared with many of them a fascination with events from antiquity and legend.
In 1917 he died of cancer, but he had carried on working virtually to the end of his life.
From 1908-1914 he painted a series of paintings based upon the Persephone legend. They were followed by pictures based upon literature and mythology in 1916 (Miranda, Tristram and Isolde). One of his final works was The Enchanted Garden, left unfinished on his easel at his death, and now in the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Very little is known of Waterhouse’s private life – only a few letters have survived and thus, for many years, the identity of his models has been a mystery. One letter that has survived indicates that Mary Lloyd, the model for Lord Leighton’s masterpiece Flaming June, posed for Waterhouse.
The well-known Italian male model, Angelo Colorossi, who sat for Leighton, Millais, Sargent, Watts, Burne-Jones and many other Victorian artists, also sat for Waterhouse.
John William Waterhouse and his wife Esther did not have any children. Esther Waterhouse outlived her husband by 27 years, passing away in 1944 at a nursing home. Today, she is buried alongside her husband at Kensal Green Cemetery in north London.
Waterhouse’s great-nephew, Dr John Physick, has carried the Waterhouse torch into the 21st century and has shared some of his memories of his family on this website.
John William Waterhouse Paintings
A Mermaid, painted in 1901. Waterhouse’s Diploma Work, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901. The artist took, even by his own standards, considerable trouble in the realisation of this work, motivated by his attainment of RA status. The single figure of the mermaid combing her hair, and studding it with pearls conveys sadness, and the background of cliffs and rocks is both oppressive and threatening.
Echo and Narcissus painted in 1903. This large picture is extremely famous and has been reproduced time without number. Echo looks lovingly at the vain and totally self-absorbed Narcissus. Echo shown in profile, is the painter’s familiar model of the time. Both her face and figure are wonderfully realised, and her flesh- tones are marvelous, something which really sets the artist apart from his contemporaries. The trees, river, and sky are also superbly done, and produce a harmonious composition. .
The Lady of Shallott, is one of the most celebrated even of Waterhouse’s paintings. The subject of the work is, of course, Tennyson’s wonderful poem, with its amazing rythmns, and at the time the seventy-nine year old Poet Laureate was at the zenith of his fame; his influence on British artists of the second half of the 19th century is difficult to overestimate. The poem is a great favourite of mine, and shows the Lady just as ‘She loosed the chain,’ in Part IV.
The verse in full I set out below:-
And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With a glossy 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.’
The beautiful central figure is complemented by the reeds in the foreground, the flowing water of the river, and the background of riverbank and trees. A masterpiece, and for more than a century this has been one of the most popular paintings in the Tate Gallery, and understandably so.
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