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.

7 Responses to “John William Waterhouse – Ariadne”

  1. thefugitivestag 2nd Sep 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    Missed you. Timely post – my heroine just gone through her Ariadne metamorphosis. The Fugitive Stag continues on his hunt …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Hill 3rd Sep 2020 at 6:44 am #

    beautiful painting

    Liked by 1 person

  3. smilla72 8th Sep 2020 at 9:49 am #

    Hi Byron’s muse. Reading your remarkable texts makes me speechless. You should teach art at University! My comments are modest compared to what you write about Caspar David Friedrich and my beloved JW Waterhouse. You know already my connection to Caspar David Friedrich, THE German romantic painter ( and in my opinion the greatest German artist since Dürer). Do you know what Goethe said about his paintings? « One could hang them upside down that would make no difference » (my English is not good but you understand the quote). Goethe was a great mind but the worst art and music critic of his age. Now JW Waterhouse. One of my passions. I saw an amazing (temporary) Waterhouse exhibition in 2009 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal. Ariadne was also showcased. I noticed a quotation by Geoffrey Chaucer in my travel agenda that I have here on my desk. It’s in Old English and I honestly have to admit that I have trouble understanding it. It’s from Chaucer’s « The Legend of Good Women »:
    « Whan Adryane his wif aslepe was,
    For that hire syster fayrer was than she,
    He taketh hire in his hond and forth goth he
    To shipe, and as a traytour stal his wey,
    Whil that this Adryane aslepe lay… »
    One last question: what do you think of the « Art Renewal Centre » supporting more « traditional » artists like Waterhouse and Bougereau against so called « modern art »? Best regards! JM

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 9th Sep 2020 at 5:19 pm #

      Thank you so much, that is such a compliment! But I think I express myself the best in writing, not so much in speaking to audiences because I am quite shy and socially anxious. I dread holding presentations at uni. I agree with you that Friedrich is the best German painter since Durer, I can’t think of any other German artist in that time period who is that unique and captivating. Hmm what do I think about Art Renewal Centre supporting more traditional art, well I would support their decision because I have a soft spot in my heart for more traditional art, from 18th century to let’s say the end of World War I. I love Egon Schiele and Modigliani but their art is still “traditional” in comparison to Rothko, Stella and Pollock and everything that happened after that. I do enjoy modern art as well, Rothko and Pollock, but not much of it has meaning to me. I think there should be a place for every art, but personally I love paintings made with heart and soul and I am not enthusiastic about the meaningless nihilism of some modern and contemporary art.


      • smilla72 10th Sep 2020 at 12:32 pm #

        Hi Byron’s muse. Thank you for taking so much time to answer my comments. It’s a real pleasure to write comments on your blog. And besides it’s a perfect English training for me because English is only my fourth language after Luxembourgish, German and French. It’s important for me to keep a « respectable » level in English because part of my job in Luxembourg’s biggest newspaper is to correct the « Luxembourg Times Magazine ». I have taken a decision concerning my most important hobby: writing. In the future I will write comments for your blog on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (that may include comments about texts that I have already commented like the one about Christiane F.). Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays will be dedicated to my « Sonette an Babsi » (that makes 3 sonnets per week). Sunday is « resting day ». I totally agree with you about modern art. I like very much artists like early Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall Hopper, German expressionists who still painted with « heart and soul » and there are still amazing artists today but I totally reject nihilistic art that is opposed to the standards of classical and romantic beauty. Artists like Beuys, Duchamp, etc were charlatans and I totally reject the so called « happenings » or « concept art ». Unfortunately one is considered as « bigot » or even worse if one opposes the current art market. I like the way you describe yourself. I have been socially very anxious in my youth and I still don’t like noisy or crowded places but I managed to become more and more « daring » in society. Purchasing an appartment in Berlin is part of this strategy to fight against my social anxiousness. Best regards!! JM

        Liked by 1 person

        • Byron's Muse 11th Sep 2020 at 6:43 pm #

          It’s a real pleasure for me to read your comments and answer them 🙂 Your English sounds great so you don’t have to worry about that. It’s nice to know someone feels like the same about modern art. I look forward to reading more of your comments! May I ask, what is your zodiac sign and ascendant? I love astrology and read a lot about it.


          • smilla72 12th Sep 2020 at 9:51 am #

            Hi Byron’s muse. Thanks for your reply. One of the remarkable aspects of your website is the fact that it does not confine itself to one specific domain but covers a wide range of domains from Victorian art to … « Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo ». That differentiates your blog from many other blogs who are limited to one domain (I used to write for a German Gothic site but found myself disappointed by it because people writing for it seemed to have no other interests in life than Gothic subculture and there was no other topic on that blog. When I realized in a comment that Gothic lifestyle is NOT what I am looking for in life the hostess of the blog friendly dismissed me from the blog and I didn’t receive notifications since). Now to your question: well again we too seem to come from the same planet! I am passionate about astrology since more than twenty years and I’ve read plenty of books about it. People in my entourage always seemed surprised when they realized that such a « sensible » person like me believes in astrology. The matter is more complicated. I do not believe in « predictive » astrology but I am convinced that the (how do you call it in English?) the « constellation at birth » reflects the innermost personality of the person. I do not believe in an « influence » by planets but in the old knowledge « Wie da oben so hier unten » (the here-down as mirror of the up-there). Now I give you the essential parts of my birth constellation ( I was born on 29 August 1972 in Luxembourg City): Sun: Virgo / Ascendent: Virgo / Mars: Virgo / Mercury (my governor): Leo / Moon: Taurus / Venus: Cancer / Sun in the Twelfth House which makes me a very introspective, sensitive but also « visionary » Virgo. I am curious to hear about your constrllation. Next comment on Tuesday. Best regards, JM

            Liked by 1 person

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