John William Waterhouse – The Naiad

3 Apr

Wonderful and well-loved painter of dream-like mythology scenes, John William Waterhouse was born on 6th April 1849 in Rome. So his birthday is coming up in a few days and I think his paintings with nymphs and enchanting woodlands are perfect scenes to gaze at in these times of spring’s awakening.

John William Waterhouse, The Naiad (Hylas with a Nymph), 1893

A nymph gazes wistfully at a handsome sleeping lad. “How handsome he is!”, she must be thinking, and what thoughts arise in her mischievous naiad mind as she gazes at his slumbering body covered only with a patch of animal skin… Drops of water are dripping from her long weed-like hair and rippling in the river, a twig snaps in her hand, she holds her breath, but alas the young slumbering lad awakes! Dazed and confused, he rises his body and sees the beautiful naiad, her naked body as pure, white and alluring as a lily flower in moonlight. I hear Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun coming from afar, every leaf, every moss and every blade of grass are echoing the sounds and bringing it closer, it flies through the air, the enchanting melody which sings of awakening. Two hearts beating loudly in the loneliness of the woods. Doomed is the moment when Hylas awoke and saw this naiad, this child of nature and sweet water nymph with ruby lips and wistful gaze.

Waterhouse’s depictions of mythology scenes are very dreamy and romantical, but at the same time they are incredibly realistic because they perfectly convey the mysterious and magical mood of nature. Just look at the dense row of thin trees of very soothing brown bark, grass and the billowing river, painted in soft blue zig zag brushstrokes, which gives the painting a sense of depth and seems to reflect the sky. It doesn’t look as idealised or grandiosely beautiful as J.M.W. Turner or Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings do, no, the way Waterhouse paints nature as a setting for his romanticised mythological scenes is realistic enough to make you believe that when you go for a stroll in the woods or sit by a lake that you could actually encounter a nymph or step into the world of dreams. I never actually saw a satyr or a nymph in the woods, but I know that it was a case of bad timing, different schedules, you know how it is in life.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

Painting “The Naiad”, painted in 1893, is like a prelude to the more famous one “Hylas and the Nymphs” painted a few years later, in 1896. Hylas was asleep. Hylas awoke, the nymphs wanted him and the nymphs got him. How magnetically handsome he is, they sigh… Their hearts ache with a desire to draw him deep into the moist depths of their lake, deep under the water lilies and those big flat floating leaves which serve as beds to water lilies.

Nymphs are female creatures in Greek and Latin mythology. They are usually depicted as beautiful and fatal maidens who love to sing, dance and hang out with satyrs in forest groves and lakes. They are also notorious for being 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, seduction and doom, Waterhouse fully expressed his romantic sensibility, and revealed his fascination with strong and beautiful female figures. Nymphs are presented as sweet and alluring, and Hylas is powerless against their charms.

12 Responses to “John William Waterhouse – The Naiad”

  1. rhjbyron 3rd Apr 2020 at 8:12 pm #

    Thanks That’s so natural and lovely, I’d love to be the sleeping man

    R x


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Hill 4th Apr 2020 at 10:53 am #

    I read somewhere that Hylas and the Nymphs were taken down from the Manchester Museum ? It seems ridiculous !


    • Byron's Muse 4th Apr 2020 at 11:27 am #

      Oh yes I read about that too. Something with the metoo movement. I think it is absolutely ridiculous and totally a product of this new toxic wave of feminism whose point isn’t even equality but god knows what. They thought the female bodies of nymphs are sexualisation of a female body, which is absurd! There is nothing vulgar or provocative about this painting and nothing that could degrade a woman, and I as a female can say that. In fact, if you look at the story line, poor Hylas being seduced and possibly ravished by all these nymphs, it’s actually Hylas, the man in the artwork, who is the real victim of these greedy sensual water nymphs. So maybe men should feel offended that this possibility of a gang-rape is portrayed so innocently. But I am not buying into these modern trends and interpretations and political correctness. I am sure Waterhouse had no sinister ideas in mind and it’s absurd and wrong to judge an old artwork by modern, fleeting and often deranged standards.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael Hill 4th Apr 2020 at 11:52 am #

        Totally agree

        Liked by 1 person

      • Burne-Jones fan 1st Mar 2021 at 10:09 pm #

        An excellent take on a dreadful act of cultural vandalism. Another “justification” the New Puritans gave for their crass behaviour was that the Pre-Raphaelites didn’t lead very edifying lives (!!) The Pre-Raffs were idealists who projected their visionary art into their life-styles. They were also sworn enemies of hypocracy! There’s a fine book about the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in Manchester City Art Gallery by Victorian Art expert, Julian Treuherz. Pretty difficult to get hold of now, I would think, but a trawl round the second hand shops might lead to a nice surprise.

        Liked by 2 people

      • So Sweetly She Sings 1st Jul 2021 at 7:15 pm #

        I agree so much!!!!!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael Hill 2nd Mar 2021 at 1:58 pm #

    Up the Pre-Raffs !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Burne-Jones fan 2nd Mar 2021 at 9:21 pm #

      Absolutely! Still causing cultural chaos after all these years. What a gang!

      Liked by 2 people

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