John William Waterhouse was a painter of mystery, beauty and dreams. Continuing the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, and adding a few Impressionistic touches, Waterhouse created an original and mystic world of melancholic, wistful and often fatal beauties.
Little is known about John William Waterhouse; he was a private man and therefor left no diaries or letters, no famous quotes, private dramas or thrilling love stories. Up until recently, the names of his beautiful models were wrapped in mystery as well, some still are. Waterhouse was born in Rome to English parents who were both painters. Even the precise date of his birth is unsure, but he was baptised in early April 1849; the same year that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, led by the dashing young painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, first created a stir in the London art scene. His early life in Italy, and many trips to Italy later in life, inspired him to paint scenes of ancient Rome and scenes from Roman mythology. Over and above, Italy was a great source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites as well.
Lack of information regarding his private life may compel some of the viewers to find his paintings cold, lacking in the ‘intensity and emotion’ of the other Pre-Raphaelite artists. In addition, some (recent) critics have classified his work as being pure imitation of Rossetti and Millais’ works, lacking the personal touch thus making his paintings vague in comparison with Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces such as Millais’ Ophelia. I highly disagree with these claims! Waterhouse, although adopting the Pre-Raphaelite painting style, created paintings that burst with originality, beauty and mysticism.
Their dreamy quality simply draws the viewers in, allowing them to escape from reality into the mythical world where nymphs, antic heroes, beautiful heroines and satyrs reside; the magic world that combines romantic Arthurian legends and mythological creatures with the painter’s own sensibility, poetic brush strokes and Victorian symbolism. The lack of known personal involvement with the subject in my opinion only adds to the element of mystery, thus making his paintings more intriguing and even harder to understand.
Waterhouse painted this painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs‘ in 1896, at the age of 47, when much of his most famous works had already been painted. The painting shows Hylas, the young and handsome companion of Hercules, surrounded by enchanting nymphs peaking from the tranquil greenish water. Hercules and Hylas had arrived at the island of Cios, and as soon Nymphs noticed young Hylas, they became enchanted by his beauty.
As usual, Waterhouse is never direct, he instead presents us the occasion just the moment before the inevitable happened. Hylas is being pulled by the Nymphs into their sinister watery abode, but we don’t see that tragic moment, we only see one Nymph taking Hylas’ hand and focusing her cold, wistful gaze at him. Only a moment later, lurid cries reverberated through the island; Hercules was calling for Hylas, but in vain. Waterhouse proficiently portrays dark and tragic moments, giving them beauty and serenity.
Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing and dance, and behaving naughty as one can see in the story with Hylas. They represent power of nature. Name ‘nymph’ comes from Greek word ‘nymphē‘ which means ‘bride’ and ‘veiled’, referring to a marriageable young woman. One of the meaning is a ‘rose-bud’, perhaps indicating the beauty all the nymphs possess. By choosing nymphs as subjects and portraying this tragic story of love and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.
Nymphs obviously stole the poor Hylas’ spotlight with their luminous skin and sensual bodies, capturing the viewer with their beauty in the same way they captured Hylas. Nymphs have been painted in art before, but never quite as magically, or as sinisterly. In previous versions they appeared plump and cheerful, whereas Waterhouse portrayed them as having more girlish bodies, with fair skin that exceeds into mystical green shades underwater. They appear otherworldly in every sense of the word. Their hair is sleek and wet, decorated with modest flowers, and they have different face expressions, ranging from cold to wistful and idle gazes.
Then there are those splendid lilac brush strokes which emphasise the magic and captivating strength that these beauties possess. The water is green, strangely calm, sprinkled with tiny white flowers. In India, water-lilies are considered symbolic of the grief of separation. Knowing the story, we could connect water lilies as symbols of separation for Hylas; separation from this world. Two nymphs on the far right are shown dreamily playing with large water lily leaves. These are the nymphs that Faun from Mallarme’s poem ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ was obsessed with.
‘These nymphs I would perpetuate.
Their light carnation, that it floats in the air
Heavy with tufted slumbers.
Was it a dream I loved?‘
Listening to Claude Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’ you can almost feel them dancing and laughing in the background, the green water splashing around, their long hair floating on the water, their skin shining in the sunlight.
1975. Advert for ‘Ondine Bath Dew’, Cosmopolitan, July, Photo found HERE.
The advert above was particularly interesting to me because it was obviously inspired by Waterhouse’s masterpiece, mixed with ’70s aesthetics. I think the photo captured the atmosphere very well; magical, dreamy and sinister.
The photo below shows a dress called ‘Nymphe’; an example of Parisian fashion for May 1921. I can imagine Nymphs wearing something similar, fluttery and decorated with flowers.
Subjects from Greek and Latin Mythology or Arthurian legends were especially popular in the nineteenth century, for they seemed to touch a nerve with Victorians whose everyday reality was far from ‘magical and romantic’; Industrial revolution was in full bloom and poverty and social injustices were on every corner.