J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite / Royal Academy of Arts, London

Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Sackler Wing of Galleries

J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite
27 June – 13 September 2009

The Royal Academy of Arts presents a major retrospective exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917).

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse
A Mermaid, 1900
Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 66.6 cm
Royal Academy of Arts, London
Photo courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London
© All rights reserved

The exhibition, which features over 40 paintings from both public and private collections, includes such highlights as The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate), Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 (Manchester Art Gallery), Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea, 1892 (The Art Gallery of South Australia), and from the Royal Academy Collection, A Mermaid, 1900. These works are accompanied by studies in oil, chalk and pencil; period photographs; sketchbooks; and the volumes of Tennyson and Shelley in which Waterhouse drew sketches.

The retrospective considers how Waterhouse’s paintings reflect his engagement with contemporary issues ranging from antiquarianism and the classical heritage to occultism and the ‘New Woman’. It includes almost all the paintings which made him one of the most successful and critically acclaimed artists of the day. This is the first major Waterhouse show to be presented in the United Kingdom since the late 1970s.

Waterhouse was born to British parents in Rome in 1849. That same year, the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) delivered their manifesto for a new, ‘reformed’, art which challenged the ‘official’ art promoted through the Academy’s teaching and Annual Exhibitions. Waterhouse inherited the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s taste for Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare, but also drew inspiration from classical mythology interpreted by Homer and Ovid. Although his images are perceived as serene, they belie a Romantic fascination with intense human passions.

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse
St Eulalia, 1885
Oil on canvas
188.6 x 117.5 cm
Tate: Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894
© Photo copyright Tate, London 2009

During the 1890s, Waterhouse gravitated toward images of metamorphosis which made subtle references to contemporary Symbolist preoccupations: lily-like nymphs seducing Hylas into their pool; naiads discovering the severed head of Orpheus singing as it floats in the river; and Echo and Narcissus pining away. Such explicit subjects gave way after 1900 to more ambiguously titled, mythically inspired scenes of maidens picking flowers. These were succeeded by a decisive return to the more emotionally, highly charged “Pre-Raphaelite” narratives as Miranda – The Tempest, Tristram and Isolde, and The Decameron.

Waterhouse’s richly coloured canvases, often large in scale, deliver a visual impact that is both compelling and unprecedented. Individually, his canvases astonish viewers with lively brushwork, dramatic compositions, and deft draftsmanship. His painterly manner and adherence to three-dimensional space distinguish him from his Pre-Raphaelite forerunners. This exhibition will examine the notion of Waterhouse as a “belated” Pre-Raphaelite who discovered Millais’s Ophelia (Tate, 1851-52) in 1886, at exactly the same moment that he was absorbing the spontaneity of newer French art through William Logsdail, Frank Bramley, and the Newlyn and Primrose Hill Schools. The twentieth-century scholars who reclaimed the Pre-Raphaelites often marginalised Waterhouse for such seemingly contradictory tendencies, yet it is these which have endeared him to viewers today.

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse
Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896
Oil on canvas
98.2 x 163.3 cm
Manchester City Galleries. Purchased 1896
© Photo copyright Manchester City Galleries

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse
Miranda, 1875
Oil on canvas
76.2 x 101.5 cm
Collection of Robert and Ann Wiggins, USA
© All rights reserved

Waterhouse enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Royal Academy of Arts. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1870 as a probationary student of sculpture before turning to painting and his work was accepted at the prestigious annual Summer Exhibition in 1874, when he was aged 25. Eleven years later, the exhibition of his painting of the young Christian martyr, St Eulalia, won him election as an Associate Member of the institution, a distinction which was followed by his election as a full Royal Academician in 1895. He marked his entry to the artistic elite by depositing A Mermaid with the institution as his Diploma Work, and his commitment to the Academy as a whole by teaching regularly in the RA Schools.


The accompanying catalogue captures the visual impact of Waterhouse’s richly coloured and compelling canvases. The exhibition’s curators’ explore the artist’s distinctive role in the history of British art, his engagement with the pictorial innovations that were taking place in France during the later nineteenth century, and the artist’s particular vision of femininity.

Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts
Images © Their respective owners. All rights reserved


Stampfli & Turci – Art Dealers

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~ by Stampfli & Turci on August 24, 2009.

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