Hylas and the Nymphs is a painting by the English artist John William WaterhouseJohn William Waterhouse was an English artist known primarily for his depictions of women set in scenes from myth, legend or poetry. He is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. . It was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1897 and is currently in the collection of the Manchester Art Gallery, which acquired it from the artist in 1896.
The picture became a focus of attention for claims of censorship in 2018, when it was temporarily removed from the gallery’s display in the course of a project by the artist Sonia Boyce, exploring who should decide what is appropriate to be seen on the walls of museums and galleries. The removal was widely condemned as unwelcome political correctness: “If Waterhouse’s image of a youth surrounded by naked young women was to be taken down, where would it end?”
Hylas is a character from Greek mythology. When he was a young child his father, Theiodamas, king of the Dryopes, had been “piteously slain” by Hercules, who had then taken Hylas and trained him. Hylas subsequently accompanied Hercules when the pair joined Jason and his Argonauts on their quest to find the Golden Fleece. On reaching the land of Kios, Hylas sets out to seek water from a sacred spring, and becomes separated from his companions. At the spring, Hylas encounters the water nymphsA type of primitive spiritual entity from the pagan past, perhaps the manifestation of a race memory, usually associated with a single place. who entice him to his death.
Hylas is depicted as a dark-haired young man kneeling by the side of a pool, wearing blue drapery and a red sash around his waist; in his left hand there is a jug. He is leaning forward towards one of the seven naked nymphs in the water, who is holding his arm while another has a grip on his clothing. The number seven may have held some significance for Waterhouse, as he also portrayed seven sirens in Ulysses and the Sirens, and seven of the fifty daughters of King Danaus in The DanaidesOil on canvas painting by John William Waterhouse exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906. (1906).
The painting was put back on display in the Manchester Art Gallery after just one week, but it has an unresolved sexual dynamic. Hercules and Hylas were lovers, and the adolescent nymphs can be seen as trying to entice Hylas back into what the Victorians might have considered to be the hetereosexual norm. The historian Mary Beard has commented that “In almost every way, this picture is simultaneously beautiful and uncomfortable viewing – which is all the more reason why we should look at it and think about it.”