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John William Waterhouse is arguably one of the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelite artists, although he was from the second generation of the movement. He was born in Rome in April 1849, about a year after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in London.
Both of Waterhouse’s parents were British painters, who eventually brought him back to their homeland and enrolled their son in the Royal Academy of Art. The painter began his artistic career following the standards of the Academy, focusing on large-scale works, subjects of Greek mythology, and grabbed the attention of public and critics in the Academy’s annual summer exhibit.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began during a revolutionary period in Europe. Karl Marx had released his Communist Manifesto, and change was imminent in many countries. A group of young British painters wished to cause a revolution in the art world as well – Sir John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rosette were the pioneers to the Brotherhood that would soon gather more painters and inspire artists for generations to come—tired of the predictability of Academic art, considering it boring and somewhat lazy. The Brotherhood had a great interest in poetry and literature, just as in visual arts, bringing new subject matters, like Arthurian legends and interpretations of Shakespeare’s work.
Their earlier works portrayed mostly beautiful women with long, dark flowing hair – realistic but a bit idealistic, like seen in The Magic Circle, a painting from 1886. Later, the artists began to separate their artwork even more from the Classic standards by representing their subjects in extraordinarily life-like and realistic paintings.
About a decade prior to the modern Impressionists, the Pre-Raphaelites were already turning their attention to matters of the urban life, while also working outdoors in many occasions – a technique the Impressionists adopted and called painting en plein air. As the name of the movement states, the artists were prone to art that was made before Raphael’s followers, which in their interpretation, created a particular formula in their work in which they followed.
Waterhouse brought the Pre-Raphaelite movement into the twentieth century, although his earlier works portrayed Classical themes influenced by the Academy. He began showing his artworks at the Society of British Artists, as well as the Dudley Gallery. His first big success was concluded in 1874, entitled Sleep and his Half-brother Death, and was shown in the Royal Academy summer exhibit.
After this, Waterhouse participated in virtually every art show until 1916, a year before his death, with a couple of exceptions. The British painter was inspired in poetry by Alfred Tennyson, which resulted in three different paintings of The Lady of Shalott. His oil paintings often portrayed beautiful nymphs of ancient Greek mythology, as well as women of Arthurian legends.
Waterhouse became very ill due to cancer in 1915, which affected his productivity, and he passed away in February of 1917.