Magical and dreamy quality of this painting simply draws you into its world of melancholy, hidden symbols and the inevitable darkness that pervades the atmosphere.
Elaine of Astolat, a figure in Arthurian legends, apparently died of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. Her body was placed in a small boat, one hand holding a lily and the other clutching her final letter. She them floated from Thames to Camelot where they discovered the body, calling Elaine ‘a little lily maiden‘.
Legend about Elaine was very popular among Victorian artists and poets, as were many other Arthurian and Medieval legends, but this legend about a frail and delicate lady who faces her own destiny sparked a special interest of John William Waterhouse, a famous Pre-Raphaelite painter. This sad and unusual fate of the poor maiden fascinated Pre-Raphaelites, and Waterhouse painted many scenes inspired by Elaine. The legend also awakened the attention of other Pre-Raphaelite painters such as William Holman Hunt and Gabriel Dante Rossetti.
It was however, Lord Tennyson’s poem called ‘Lady of Shalott‘, first version being published in 1833. and the second in 1842, that gave a new vision of Elaine’s destiny which the artists accepted. In the poem, nineteen stanzas long in the second edition, Lord Tennyson explores Elaine’s life in isolation in the tower and the longing to live a real life among real people. Her suffering is caused by a curse that has been cast upon her; a mysterious curse that forces her to weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. She looks in the mirror instead, yearning to see the busy streets and the people of Camelot directly. ‘I’m half-sick of shadows.‘ said The Lady of Shalott; the shadows being a metaphor for the reflected images in the mirror which the Lady feels are a poor substitute for seeing people directly.
The inevitable thing happened, one day a handsome and charming knight passed by, Sir Lancelot, and The Lady of Shalott discarded her weaving and looked out of the window towards Camelot bringing about the curse. The Lady of Shalott then left the tower, found a boat, wrote her name on it and floated down the river to Camelot where the ladies of the court and the knights found her. Lancelot considered her appearance of particular beauty and grace.
- ”Who is this? And what is here?”
- And in the lighted palace near
- Died the sound of royal cheer;
- And they crossed themselves for fear,
- All the Knights at Camelot;
- But Lancelot mused a little space
- He said, “She has a lovely face;
- God in his mercy lend her grace,
- The Lady of Shalott.”
Mysterious curse, beauty of this maiden, isolating life in the tower, reality seen through the mirror; all these elements inspired John William Waterhouse in painting ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in three different versions; first in 1888, then in 1894. and 1915. respectively. The first painting, painted in 1888. is the most appealing to me, and it’s also considered one of Waterhouses’ most popular works due to many reasons. The Lady of Shalott is presented here in a boat after escaping the tower in an autumn storm, inscribing ‘The Lady of Shalott‘ on the prow. As she sailed towards Camelot and her certain death, she sang a lament, lying resigned with her fate yet full of deep melancholy. Waterhouse captured this moment of Tennyson’s poem:
‘And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.‘
This painting is the epitome of the Pre-Raphaelite style due to its sympathetic notion towards the subject portrayed; he was so tender in portraying a vulnerable yearning woman, the Pre-Raphaelite aspect of nature, along with the vivid colour and detail characteristic for Pre-Raphaelite painting style. Despite the captivating, almost magical quality of the painting, the atmosphere is engulfed in darkness; the certainty of Lady’s death, her sad resignation, life and reality she wanted to experience but never did, the romantic love she hoped for but never sensed it. This painting is romantic but only at the first sight. While looking at the painting, the first thing you see is a beautiful long haired maiden, immersed in tranquility, sitting in a boat surrounded by her possessions, but Waterhouse portrayed the scene with much more complexity. One could get lost in this nature, bursting with beauty and details as it was a character itself.
The painting is filled with metaphoric references; the lantern at the boat suggests it will soon be dark, a crucifix positioned near the front of the bow, and three candles, two of which are already blown out signifying that her death is soon to come. Also, the detailed approach of Waterhouse’s painting style is evident in the tapestry draped over the side of the boat; it is the tapestry that The Lady of Shalott had been vowing in her isolation and solitary in the tower.
Lord Tennyson’s poem, main inspiration for Waterhouse’s paintings, prompted the modern critics into believing that is represents the dilemma the artists, writers and musicians face; ‘to create work about and celebrate the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it.‘