John William Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott from 1888 in an instantly recognisable work of balance, myth, and wonder. Inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s early ballad ‘The Lady Of Shalott’ in which a cursed woman isolated in a tower in Shalott only sees the world outside through its reflection in mirror. In this Arthurian tale that conjured the legendary world of Medieval England, the woman one day catches sight of the knight Lancelot in her mirror and cannot help but look upon him directly. Her curse begins to take over and she drifts down the river to Camelot singing a final song before dying on the journey. In Waterhouse’s reproduction of this literary tableau the woman is depicted relinquishing control of the boat’s chain, staring towards three solemn candles. The scene was a popular subject for artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the mid-nineteenth century which remained a dominant influence throughout Waterhouse’s career.
Often assigned as a late embodiment of the Pre-Raphaelite ideals and style, Waterhouse can also be said to represent the genesis of the Symbolist movement of the second half of the nineteenth century. Finding its spiritual home in the heady world of fin-de-siècle Paris, the movement was characterised by an intermingling of poetry and painting, rejecting direct representation of a subject in favour of an evocation of the emotion of the scene. The Symbolists believed that it was the paramount task of the artist to conjure expressive reproductions of emotional experiences. Usually Symbolist paintings took the form of mythical or thematically abstract scenes, thus paving the way for the experiential reproductions of Impressionism and the abstraction of early Modernism. Waterhouse, a Victorian painter of the highest calibre, utilized his fervent interest in feminine beauty and mystique to forge a work characteristic of his usual doomed female subjects, yet attuned to the prevailing atmosphere of Symbolist painting. The Lady of Shalott is consequently revered as Waterhouse’s most accomplished work.
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