The Lady of Shalott is the first in a trilogy of oil paintings capturing the English artist John William Waterhouse’sJohn 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. interpretation of three different scenes from Lord Tennyson’s poem. Submitted by Waterhouse as his Royal Academy of Arts exhibit of 1888, it marked a turning point in his career as it began his series of themes based on romantic literature.
Waterhouse owned a copy of the 1885 publication, The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson Poet Laureate, which contains the poem about the Lady of Shalott. The narrative describes a maiden – or fairy Lady as she is referred to within the text – trapped downstream of Camelot on the island of Shalott; she is cursed and must constantly work on a loom producing tapestries of events taking place outside her window. She is not, however, allowed to gaze straight out and must rely on what she views in a mirror.
One day she notices Lancelot riding past the window and, enthralled by the sight of the handsome knight, she cannot resist looking directly at him through the window. It proves to be the catalyst that evokes the curse and she must face her death singing in a boat on the way to Camelot.
The painting, one of the largest produced by Waterhouse,[a] displays his interpretation of when the maiden is suspended for a brief period in time before the realisation of the curse after she left her former life of imprisonment in the tower. It is the moment in the middle of the line in the poem that reads: “She loos’d the chain and down she lay”; in the painting, the chain shackle tethering the boat to the riverbank is ready to be dropped from her hand. Despite being aware viewers at the exhibition would be familiar with the poem, Waterhouse transcribed two earlier lines and a following line from it in the exhibition catalogue:
And down the river's dim expanse,
Like some bold seër in a trance, ...
The broad stream bore her far away.
Where possible the artist remained true to the poet’s text; Tennyson did not however reveal any features of what the maiden looked like save that she was dressed in white, an element incorporated by Waterhouse; other details had to be procured from the artist’s imagination. Choosing the fashionable theme of a Celtic-type long-haired redhead, Waterhouse concentrates attention on her trance-like state, emphasising her eyes puffed from crying together with her parted, swollen, lips as she chants her final lament. The sorceress in The Magic CircleThe Magic Circle (1886) is an oil painting by John William Waterhouse, one of his earliest depictions of a classical sorceress. , Waterhouse’s painting of 1886, wore a heavy sash round her waist; a similar device is placed in a low-slung position to give a slight protuberance to the Lady of Shalott’s stomach, symbolic of her denied sensuality.
In the moment before lying down to face her destiny of death, she is seated on the tapestry she has woven during her enforced confinement; as it falls casually over the edge of the boat, glimpses of the reflected scenes she viewed as described earlier in the poem are visible on the fabric.[b] The window of her prison can be seen in the top left of the painting; it is also depicted on the tapestry.
Introducing a religious facet to the scene, at the front of the boat – which is carved with her name – Waterhouse includes a trio of candles; two are already extinguished, the third flickers as a symbol of her impending death. Other religious artefacts are a crucifix representing the abandonment of obligations and the death of a martyr; together with a rosary as a token of the maiden’s purity and characteristic of the Virgin Mary.
The rich hues employed for the key components at the centre of the picture are amplified by the muted tones of the surroundings. Captured as night draws in and further dimmed by rain, the landscape has been crafted to convey a “quickly glimpsed impression” and take it away from being a contrived studio setting. Symbolism is also employed with the inclusion of willows, the representation of grief, and swallows, the emblem for salvation.[c]
Reception and legacy
First exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1888, it was purchased by Sir Henry Tate.[d] Records do not indicate the purchase price but Trippi speculates that, due to the rising status of the artist, it would have been higher than the £900 paid when Tate bought Consulting the Oracle, Waterhouse’s 1884 Academy exhibit.[e] Art expert Robert Upstone suggests the figure may have been around a thousand guineas. The Lady of Shalott was one of the sixty-five paintings Tate gifted to the National Gallery of British Art.
The painting marked a change in direction for Waterhouse; while he remained loyal to his favourite topic of mystical women, some being punished or facing violent deaths, his themes changed to being based on romantic literature. The artist had already displayed a penchant towards differing levels of trance-like consciousness, martyrdom, muted eroticism and using a harmony between women and water in his work so, according to art historian Peter Trippi, interpreting this particular scene was a natural progression.
Described in modern times by art experts as being Waterhouse’s best known and most famous piece, it received mixed reactions from contemporary critics. Produced at a time when there was uncertainty, discontent and criticism levelled at the Royal Academy concerning the direction the British art world should be taking, Waterhouse fused the style of the Pre-Raphaelites in his treatment of the central figure but embraced the naturalistic techniques of the French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage for the background and foliage. Upstone suggests the artist was attempting to demonstrate a means whereby some reconciliation could be achieved between the warring factions. Critics like Marion H. Spielmann, editor of The Magazine of Art, deemed the painting “a disappointment” adding that “…the French flatness of tones takes much of the quality out of the colour…” Younger artists greeted it with enthusiasm and The Academy committee had already acknowledged its approval by hanging it in a prominent position at the exhibition.[f]
Waterhouse went on to produce nine artworks based on, or in the style of, Tennyson’s narratives including the trilogy of paintings centred on The Lady of Shalott. In 1894, he captured a different aspect of the titular character, at an earlier point in the tale when the maiden looked directly at the handsome knight.[g] The final rendition of the Lady came in his 1916 Academy exhibit, ‘I am Half Sick of Shadows, said The Lady of Shalott, where he shows her resting from her work on the loom but conveys her exasperation at her plight as she views the reflection of a pair of lovers in the mirror.[h]
Writing in 1999, Lionel Lambourne, scholar and former curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, indicated postcards produced by the Tate Gallery of the painting and those of Ophelia by Millais competed for the position of being its top-selling item. By 2003, according to Trippi, purchases of The Lady of Shalott postcard dominated the sales leader board.
- Academic Anthony Hobson notes that MariamneOil painting by John William Waterhouse , Waterhouse’s 1887 Royal Academy exhibit, is the only one of the artist’s works that is larger.
- For instance, it depicts: “knights riding … two and two”; “An abbott on an ambling pad”; and “a funeral, with plumes and lights and music”.
- The pair of swallows can be seen on the left of the painting.
- Sir Henry Tate (1819–1899), sugar magnate, founded The National Gallery of British Art, which became the Tate Gallery.
- Tate had agreed to pay £900 for the Consulting the Oracle painting prior to the 1884 exhibition; he also purchased St Eulalia at the following year’s exhibition.
- The painting was positioned so it could be viewed as people used the grand staircase at Burlington House.
- The 1894 painting was also titled The Lady of Shalott but is generally referred to as The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot.
- The final painting in the trilogy was completed in, and dated, 1915.