During the First World War many British artists, including Waterhouse, looking to bring a sense of patriotism to their work referred back to classical literature of Britain's past. Turning from scenes of Roman and Greek classical themes to Arthurian legends, the poetry of Tennyson and the work of Shakespeare as inspiration, something the Pre-Raphaelites had done fifty years earlier. The Tempest, Miranda was one of three paintings Waterhouse presented in the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in 1916, along with A Tale from the Decameron and the painting Waterhouse is most known for, The Lady of Shalott.
The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays, was written in 1611 and was the romantic comedy of its time. Set on a remote island called Prospero, the Duke of Milan and his fifteen-year-old daughter Miranda have been exiled for twelve years. Intending to sink the ship carrying the king who exiled him, Prospero uses his magical powers to conjure up a storm, marooning a cast of characters including Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, with whom Miranda falls in love and marries at the end of the play.
Inspired by Shakespeare's play, Waterhouse depicts Miranda, the only woman in the play, with dramatic intensity. She is witnesses to the moment the ship carrying her future lover Ferdinand is overtaken by the sea and “dashed to pieces,” according to the play. The Tempest, Miranda displays Waterhouse's continuing fascination with the single-figure, usually a woman, combined with themes of magic and water, as in The Mermaid, The Siren and The Lady of Shalott.
In The Tempest, Miranda a young woman in three-quarter view is surrounded by the violent sea. Evening light spreads across the sky, Miranda clasps one hand to her heart, her other hand holds back her auburn hair as she watches the sea destroy the ship carrying her future lover. The reddish hair contrasts perfectly with the turquoise sea, as the blue of her gown contrasts with her pale skin. The ship, ravaged by wind and waves occupy the upper left of the canvas, its hull glowing yellow against a dark sea, the dangerous tilt of its masts and the dark rocks to the right foreshadowing doom.
Waterhouse had attended a Pre-Raphelite retrospective in 1886, and his work, drawing on British literature, placing a beautiful woman in a mystical and water-themed setting draws a line directly to the movement established by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais a half-century earlier. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they called themselves, had an overarching mission to reform the current-day Victorian art establishment by embracing the kind of detail and the large areas of flat colors embraced by Flemish and early Italian painters. Millais' Ophelia is a perfect example of the typical Pre-Raphelite style that took art critic John Ruskin's advice to “go to nature...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing” literally. The Pre-Raphelites were some of the first to take their easels outdoors to capture the bend and sway of each blade of grass. Later in his career, fifty years after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Waterhouse picks up on their established subject line with looser more Impressionistic brushwork, earning himself the nickname “the modern Pre-Raphaelite.” Despite the Pre-Raphaelite style having been passed for decades, Waterhouse takes on the Pre-Raphelites' favorite subjects using the techniques of the French painters of the time. Waterhouse's work The Tempest, Miranda perfectly illustrates this meshing of artistic movements.
This painting is not Waterhouse's first approach to Miranda from the Tempest. He had previously painted the same subject in 1875. In the earlier version a maiden dressed in a neo-classical gown, her hair in a classic Greek coif, looks out over a calm sea. The later Miranda tells a different, far more turbulent story in keeping with the more perilous times in which the painting was created. Waterhouse, like Miranda in the painting, faces the issues of the day.
Waterhouse's paintings became larger and larger over time. This work, painted in 1916 is a large-scale work measuring 39 ½ inches by 54 inches. The painting sold at auction in 2009 for $746,500 to a private collector.
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