Atelier · April 27, 2007

Friday in the atelier: “Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse

Today I’m displaying a cropped detail of “Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

When I walk into an art and framing store, like Aaron Brothers or Michaels, or a place in a mall, I notice the most popular prints are often from Academic or Romantic masters. John William Waterhouse is one of the popular artists displayed. “Lady of Shalott” is often prominently displayed. To me this speaks on the enduring attraction of art created by those who painstaking learned the methods of life-like figure painting. I compare this to “modern” art from artists like Jackson Pollock, whose works I never see on display at popular art sellers.

Works by Waterhouse are among the most popular of all art at the Art Renewal Center web site. He painted works out of mythology, legend and fantasy that seem to appeal to a broad range of viewers. But despite his popularity very little seems to be known about Waterhouse himself.

John Waterhouse was born in Rome, but at the age of 5 his family moved to London England. Both of John Waterhouse’s parents were painters, and John was taught by his father at first, and later attended the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He was active in the art community, married Esther Kenworthy, who was also active in the arts but who probably was not a painter. They had no children.

Waterhouse’s breakthrough painting was “Sleep and His Half-Brother Death”, which was submitted to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1874. He continued to exhibit his paintings at the Royal Academy every year until his death. He became an Associate academician (ARA) at the Royal Academy in 1885 and gained full membership (RA) in 1895.

In 1917 John Waterhouse died of cancer.

Waterhouse lived long enough to see his popularity with his contemporary viewers plummet due to criticism by “modern” art critics.

By the turn of the 19th century these art critics started denigrating past masters of Academic / Romantic styles of art. They called such art “derivative” or “overly sentimental” or “overly dramatic” and with a sniff they would then explain why we should all appreciate Modern Art because it is “original”. Unfortunately there is an inherent difficulty when each new piece of art must be “original” compared to it’s predecessors. As Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, put it:

Our 20th century has marked a period that celebrated the bizarre, the novel and the outrageous for its own sake. The defining parameter of greatness to Modernism is “has it ever been done before,” “Is it totally original where there is no derivation from any former schools of art,” “does it outrage,” “does it expand the definition of what can be called art?” I propose to you today that if everything is art then nothing is art. If I call a table a chair have I expanded the definition of the word table? Would this make me brilliant? If I call a hat a shirt have I expanded the definition of hat? If I call a nail a hammer, have I expanded the definition of the word nail? Am I now a genius? If I call screeching car wheels great music have I expanded the definition of music?

Or in reality have I perpetrated a fraud on the people who wanted to buy tables, hat, nails and music and instead got chairs, shirts, hammers and a headache.

By the 1950’s and 1960’s art critics had convinced the world that artists who were world famous in their own time were actually worthless.

In 1954 the Exeter City Museum, in Devon County of England, sold off it’s collection of late Victorian era works because they were considered “artistically worthless”. These works were sold secretively, without public notice, through Christie’s. One of those works was by John William Waterhouse, “Consulting the Oracle”, which sold for a mere $300. This work is worth millions of dollars today.

I’ll present two more works by Waterhouse, the first of which is Diogenes, and the second is Cleopatra.

John Waterhouse chose subjects that have rich stories behind them. The Lady of Shalott is part of the legend of King Author. She was supposedly imprisoned in a castle and was cursed to never look upon Camelot. She also had a magical hand mirror that allowed her to see shadows of what was happening in Camelot, and though that mirror she viewed Sir Lancelot and fell in love with him. She then ignored the curse, boarded a small boat to journey to Camelot, and died from the curse just before she arrived at Camelot.

Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek philosopher who lived around 320-400 BC. Also called “Diogenes the Cynic” he is most well known today for carrying a torch or lantern during day or night to look for an “honest man.” Although none of his writings have survived, his ideas have been expressed by others who knew him. Diogenes believed that humans lived artificial lives and were hypocritical. (Hm. I think that still applies.) He advocated a very simple lifestyle, and practiced his avocation assiduously.

And of course Cleopatra is very famous, Queen of Egypt, lover of Mark Anthony, and the last Pharoh of Egypt – her story has been told over and over.

I enjoy all of these paintings by Waterhouse – the beauty and despair of the dying Lady of Shalott, the determination of Diogenes living in his tub while he is ridiculed by the rich and beautiful people of Greece, and the authority evident in the way that Waterhouse portrays Cleopatra’s eyes. They are all powerful, and they all are reinforced by the depth of their stories.

His works might not be “original”, but they are still excellent.