Archive | 4:46 pm

John William Waterhouse – Ariadne

2 Sep

“In relation to the labyrinth of her heart, every young girl is an Ariadne; she owns the thread by which one can find one’s way through it, but she owns it without herself knowing how to use it.”

(Soren Kierkegaard)

John William Waterhouse, Ariadne, 1898

The rich and vibrant colours and the sensual, indolent, Mediterranean mood of Waterhouse’s painting “Ariadne” are very aesthetically pleasing and captivating, but the resplendent beauty of this canvas hides a fascinating story from Ancient mythology and a deeper meaning. The lady lounging idly by the azure blue sea in the distance is Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan King Minos and Pasiphae. Her flowing rusty red gown speaks of blood, passion and courage. And how beautifully the redness of her dress contrasts the purple and matches the red poppies sprouting from the grass. Waterhouse’s Ariadne is as lovely as all the other maidens that inhabit the dreamy, mythology-inspired world of his canvases; she is slender and pale, with budding bosom and masses of soft brown hair. The pose of her arms and the whiteness of her bosom exposed adds a sensual mood to the painting, reminiscent of the dolce far niente genre of paintings.

Ariadne is captured by the painter’s brush in a dreamy, idle state, but if we imagine the thread of the story unraveling, we would see the arrival of Theseus, as perhaps hinted by the ship arriving to the island, and their encounter. The myth of Ariadne is very old, and has many variants, but generally the story goes that she assisted Theseus, the handsome hero whom she instantly fell in love with, to enter the labyrinth and kill the Minotaurus. She was also his savior, for she saved him from the horrid death which usually awaited everyone who tried to slay the beast in the middle of the labyrinth built by King Minos. Ariadne gave Theseus a sword to fight, and a ball of string which she was given to by Daidalos, the builder of the labyrinth.

After he slays the beast, Theseus finds his way out of the labyrinth using the ball of string and, fearing the revenge of her father, Ariadne and Theseus escape the Crete and  “During the voyage north, Theseus called in at the island of Naxos (or Dia), where he abandoned Ariadne. An early tradition suggested that he did so deliberately because he was in love with another woman, namely Aigle, a daughter of the Phocian hero Panopeus; but it was commonly agreed in the later tradition that he was obliged to leave Ariadne behind because Dionysos wanted her as his wife.” (The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology) Poor Ariadne, the lonely girl on the island of Crete who helps a hero only to be abandoned by him, stretched between passion and duty. While the tales of mythology focus on the action, the labyrinth and the Minotaurus, Waterhouse, the Victorian escapist and dreamer, focused on a dreamy moment in Ariadne’s life, the serenity before the struggle and haste, and, as always, has succeeded in beautifully capturing a female figure from mythology, just as he did with many others.