Tag Archives: Italy

Giorgio de Chirico – Melancholy and Mystery of a Street

14 May

In this post we’ll take a look at Italian Metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico’s perhaps most well-known painting called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street” and the way its portrayal of space and mood connect to some scenes from Vítězslav Nezval’s Surrealist novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders”.

Giorgio de Chirico, Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

When we think of melancholy, mysterious and lonely streets and squares in art, Chirico must be the first painter to come to mind. He painted many such scenes with cold sharply precise architecture and a strange almost sinister mood, and a well known example is the painting above called “Melancholy and Mystery of a Street”. I hesitate to call it an urban scene, even though it is a city and not countryside, because it belongs completely into a world of its own, with unique logic and moods which have nothing in common with our world. At first sight, his paintings look similar to the world we live in, but then the strangeness start lurking from the shadows and we cannot help but notice the isolated and creepy mood of the street. A white building with a repetitive row of arches, disproportions, shadows… One can almost feel a deep layer of silence and then a strange giggle coming from afar, as the shadow starts growing bigger until it covers the whole square. And yet, Chirico’s paintings manage to stay lyrical despite their coldness. Another work of art which has a world of its own is Vitezslav Nezval’s novel “Valerie and her Week of Wonders” written in 1934, at the height of Surrealist movement in Czechia, and published a decade later. Partly inspired by Surrealism and the dream theory, and partly by the tradition of the Gothic novel, Nezval’s novel is a beautiful contradiction in mood and themes. While some motifs are ever so romantic and gloomy such as the vault, long corridors, crypts, burial sights, others brings an anxious mood of dreams that is more reminiscent of Chirico’s paintings, especially the beginning of the Chapter V called “Losing the Way”:

Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted. When she glanced at one of the locked gates, a missionary appeared to her standing in front of it. She left the square and entered the square. Her legs were tired and were leading her on her own, while her spirit wandered like that of someone sleeping. Over one doorway she noticed a cluster of grapes held in the beak of a dove. Then she was alarmed by four windows that seemed to have been forged from a storm. She thought she heard a groan. Her eyes settled on a tall gas lamp with moths fluttering around it. But the groan came again. Having circled the square, she suddenly found herself just a few steps from the lamp and saw to her amazement a terrifying image: tied to the lam’s base was a girl, emitting plaints from deep in her throat. As Valerie stepped up closer, she recognised her clothes, which were torn in several places.

Scene from Valerie and her Week of Wonders (1970)

Naturally, the small square of a picturesque Czech village that Valerie has found herself on has nothing to do architecturally with Chirico’s classical and monumental Italian squares. It’s Valerie’s inner state, her emotions, fear and curiosity which give the square a slightly nightmarish mood. It’s not what she sees in front of her, it’s how she feels within that is projected on on the outside. Space in Chirico’s paintings is illogical to the eyes of grown ups, but to Valerie it isn’t unusual because she still sees things from children’s point of view, or rather, she is in the middle; just like the girl in the painting, childhood is behind her and she is walking slowly towards the shadowy figure; the adulthood. This connects to something that Chirico himself said: “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.

Paolo and Francesca: The Passion of Lovers is for Death

15 Nov

“The passion of lovers is for death said she
Licked her lips
And turned to feather”

(Bauhaus, The Passion of Lovers)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca, 1819

Kisses

It is easy to envelop the distant, mythical past in many veils of dreams and poetry. Romantics loved romanticising and the subject of doomed thirteen century lovers which charmingly unites the themes of love and death, was a perfect fuel for the artists’ fantasies from Ingres all up to now probably. Even the embraced couple, carved in splendid white marble, in Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Kiss” shows Paolo and Francesco, though the title of the work wouldn’t reveal it instantly. Different artists chose to portray different moment in Paolo and Francesca’s doomed love life; some portrayed them as innocent love bird sharing a coy kiss or two, others painted them in the moment of their deaths, and some focused on their buzzing afterlife in Inferno.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered a Classicist and still elements of Romanticism, both stylistically and thematically, often pop up in his work; from the vibrant exoticism of his harem ladies and dark archaic touch of the Northern art in some of his portraits, to his portrayal of Medieval lovers caught in their forbidden earthly love. In his painting from 1819, he presented the two lovers enjoying each others company in a small elongated chamber the walls of which are covered in wood panels which makes the room resemble a box, perhaps suggesting the oppressive environment of their household. Francesca is painted in archaic robes and resembles a character from a painting of Northern Renaissance. Paolo, in his tights and a sword, is kissing her cheek as she turns her oval face away from him. As the old saying goes: “Two is a company, three is none”; the seeming peace of their love is interrupted by a figure in the background. It’s Giovanni, slowly drawing the curtain away only to see a shocking sight. The scene all together resembles a theatre scene and the narrative aspect is very strong, Ingres is leading us thought the story with little details and gestures. The very moment Giovanni is about to raise his sword, Francesca’s book is caught in its fall to the ground.

William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini, 1837

Francesca was born in 1255 in Ravenna, her father was the lord of Ravenna; an Italian town on the Adriatic coast with a strong Byzantine influence, and the last place to be the centre of Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Around the age of twenty she married Giovanni Malatesta, the wealthy yet crippled lord of Rimini, sometimes also known as “Gianciotto” or “Giovanni the Lame”. Similarly to the story of Tristan and Isolde, Francesca wasn’t in love with Giovanni, it was just an arranged marriage after all, but her eyes soon took notice of Giovanni dashing younger brother Paolo. Gaze turned into a conversation, and words into kisses and caresses… Paolo was also married, and yet the two managed to keep their love a secret for ten years. William Dyce portrayed the couple as sitting on a balcony; Francesca is reading a book while Paolo is rushing to kiss her. Behind them is a serene verdant landscape, the moon shines in the right corner, and next to Francesca’s feet is an instrument, I am guessing, a lute which might add a sensuous touch to the scene. The scene is all together a bit too sentimental. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, hailing from Italy himself and an ardent admirer of Dante’s poetry and his life, envisaged the scene differently. In his watercolour, he portrays the couple as sitting in a chamber; pink roses are blooming, fresh air is coming in through the window, and, distracted from whatever they were reading, the couple share a passionate kiss. The book, half on his lap and half on hers, is about to fall down on the thorns of some more pink roses.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, 1867, watercolour

Death

The secret kisses turned out to be not so secret after all, for one day, around 1285, Giovanni caught them off guard, in Francesca’s bedroom. His blood fueled from rage and jealousy, and without much thinking Giovanni yielded the sword and deprived them both of life. Well, unfortunately, it wasn’t so dramatic in reality. What really happened was that Giovanni had heard some rumours about his wife cheating on him, and he rushed to her chamber. Francesca let him in because she was certain that Paolo had managed to escape through the window, but what she didn’t know was the he got stuck. Giovanni then tried to kill his brother, but Francesca tried to defend him, and was killed instead. Giovanni then proceeded to kill Paolo as well. Later they were buried in a single tomb; how devastatingly romantic is that!?

Alexandre Cabanel, The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1870

Alexandre Cabanel was a French Academic painter and the way he envisaged the scene of Paolo and Francesca’s death is very theatrical. They are both dressed in splendid clothes, their pale faces are full of pathos, their gestures tell a story of their agony. Francesca is lying on something which looks more like a sarcophagus than a bed, and the ornamental marble floor further emphases the mood of coldness and death. Meanwhile, Giovanni is checking behind the curtain one more time to be sure they are indeed dead. Previati portrayed the scene of their death in a very dramatic way, using an elongated canvas and focusing on the figures themselves and not so much on the interior. Our eyes are focused on the bodies and the agony and pain of their sudden death. The painting is striking; there is still a sword in Paolo’s back, and his arm is limp, and Francesca’s hand is on her chest while her mouth are still slightly open as if she’s still catching her breath.

Gaetano Previati, Paolo e Francesca, ca. 1887

Wind of Passion

Death is no the end, as Nick Cave says in one of his songs. Almost a thousand years had passed from their deaths, but Paolo and Francesca are still embraced and carried away by the wind of passion. It is almost hard to imagine that before their eternity of damnation they were of mortal flesh just as we are now. Dante shows both disapproval of their life choices and a sympathy when he finally meets them in Inferno. I am thinking: wow, what a way to spend eternity! Being carried by the wind, safe in the arms of the one you love. Sounds like heaven, not hell.

George Frederic Watts, Paolo et Francesca, 1872-75

When Dante met Paolo and Francesca in Hell, this is what he said:

And I began: “Thine agonies, Francesca,
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.
But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?”

And Francesca responds:

And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.
But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.
One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.
Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o’ercame us.
When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,
Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.

William Blake, The Lovers’ Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1824-27

Pietro Longhi – Clara the Rhinoceros

15 Oct

Many famous and refined beauties lived in the eighteenth century, but none possessed a beauty so striking and none kept the entire Europe fascinated as much as Clara, the rhinoceros. Her exotic beauty and chiseled features caught the eye of many artists of the day, Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry to name a few. Clara loved being a part of the art world, but she never allowed the fame to get to her head and stayed humble to the end.

Pietro Longhi, Clara, the rhinoceros in Venice, 1751, oil on canvas, 62×50 cm

Clara (1738-1758) was an absolute Rococo sensation; orphaned at a very young age after her parents were allegedly killed by Indian hunters she was brought to Europe, in Rotterdam, and afterwards continued traveling the continent and bringing delight wherever she went. She had the life of a rock star two centuries before the rock stars; common folk admired her and talked about her, authors wrote about her in the encyclopedia, and painters painted her. In January 1751, she found herself in Venice right in the carnival time and she caused quite a sensation in the ever so inquisitive Venetian society. This was about time when Longhi painted her. In his painting, a small crown of eight figures has gathered to see Clara. The composition is very interesting; the wooden fence visually divides the canvas in two parts; the foreground where Clara is languidly eating hay, and the foreground where the figures of the observers are. Some of the curious Venetians are wearing masks, it was the carnival time after all, and why not.

Some men in the first row are wearing white masks which are called “bauta”. The female figures behind them are dressed in shining silks, woman in the blue gown is wearing a black “moretta mask” which is held by the teeth and the wearer is prohibited to speak while wearing it, but this also enable the silent language of seduction to develop; a bat of the eyelashes, a wink, a nod suddenly got intense meanings. The woman in green silk cloak is holding the same mask in her hand, but showing her pale oval face. The man on the far left, the arrogant laughing chap without the mask, is holding Clara’s horn which she had either rubbed off while in Rome, or it was cut off, but anyhow a new one later grew. Longhi’s painting is, common for his work, rather small. French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry, on the other hand, had painted her two years prior to Longhi, in 1749, in full size. How monumental and regal she looks, big and shining against the landscape, one can really imagine her wearing a red velvet cloak and a crown with rubies.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Clara the Rhinoceros, 1749, oil on canvas, 310×456 cm

Pietro Longhi is renown for his intimate portrayals of the Venetian society in the mid eighteenth century or the settecento. While Antonio Canaletto focused on grandiose vedute, and Givanni Battista Tiepolo on dramatic religious paintings; Pietro Longhi offered a glimpse of what goes on “behind the closed doors”, literally and figuratively because he not only painted the witty interior scenes, but also gave us an insight in the frivolous and decadent Venetian society just before its final fall at the end of the eighteenth century.

John William Waterhouse and John Keats – Isabella and the Pot of Basil

31 Oct

John William Waterhouse’s portrayal of John Keats’s poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”, is dreamy, which is typical for his oeuvre, and, following the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites, it is rich in details, but the seemingly innocent scene hides a darker theme. In this painting, Waterhouse beautifully unites the Medieval macabre imagination of Boccaccio with the sensuous imagery created by Keats in his poem.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907

In a secluded spot of a beautiful garden somewhere in Florence, a damsel known by the name of Isabella is kneeling beside a pot of basil, embracing it with her gentle white arms and “gazing amorously upon it with all her desire”. The air is warm and fragrant, but laced with sadness. The spot seems secretive and the path that leads to it is rarely used. With no living soul around her, she must have whispered the woes of her heart to the greenery around her: the grass, the ivy, the hedge, have all become friends. The fragile red poppy that grew next to her white gown, along with a skull on the pedestal of the basil pot, could be interpreted as signs of the other world. Poppy is a flower connected to dreams, sleep and death. She is dressed in a long white gown that touches the ground with intricate Medieval-style sleeves. Her auburn hair falls on her back as she tilts her head and sighs at the inequity of her destiny. How can a maiden so young and so pretty be so sad?

Ahh, but poor Isabella is ill from sadness. In a feverish state her gaze turned blurry from tears, and yet, with wild perseverance she wraps her weak arms around the pot, pining and weeping, day upon day, night after night. Her heart aches for something she can never have, and not even a thousand tears would bring the dear face of Lorenzo back to life; the anguish that sits on her chest is heavier than a stone, and yet her face shows longing rather than pain, as if her devotion, her pining and daydreaming upon that pot of fragrant basil bring her serenity. For, what else can she do but weep her days away?

John Keats’s narrative poem “Isabella” is adapted from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (IV day, 5th story) which tells the tale of Lisabetta and Lorenzo. (A note: Keats changed the setting of the story from Messina to Florence, and the name from Lisbetta to Isabella.) In Decameron, Lisbetta is a fair and well-manered maiden who lives in the town of Messina with her three brothers who want her to marry a rich and respectable man, but Lisbetta falls in love with Lorenzo, the dashing young employee of her brothers. After enjoying the delights of each other’s company, the young lovers are discovered and the brothers decide to take things into their hands. On day they take Lorenzo into the deepest darkest forest and murder him. Lisbetta, not hearing from Lorenzo for so long, grows impatient and worried until one night he appears in her dream and tells her what had happened and where his body lies. After that “she awoke and giving faith to the vision, wept bitterly.” Lisbetta finds his body in the forest, and despite her woes remains cool-headed and knowing that she can’t take the whole body, she cuts his head off and wraps it in a napkin and:

“…returned home, where, shutting herself in her chamber with her lover’s head, she bewept it long and bitterly, insomuch that she bathed it all with her tears, and kissed it a thousand times in every part. Then, taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.”

To rest your eyes from Waterhouse, here is another version: Arthur Nowell, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1904

She sits and weeps over that pot of basil with mad devotion, adoringly wrapping her arms around it, as is she was enchanted or cursed like the Lady of Shalott. It arises suspicion in her brothers and one day they turn out the pot and find a head, not yet rotten, of Lorenzo. In fear that things might get revealed, they move to Naples and Lisbetta is once again separated from her lover, or this time, from his head. It is indeed a pity that they moved Lorenzo’s rotting head because it fertilised the soil in the pot and the basil grew ever so lush and fragrant. Every good gardener knows this is the secret to a healthy plant!

Lisbetta eventually dies from sadness: “The damsel, ceasing never from lamenting and still demanding her pot, died, weeping; and so her ill-fortuned love had end.”

Poor, poor Isabella! Waterhouse must have thought that too, when he chose to portray the scene of a sad tale of love first written by Boccaccio and later sang by Keats whose eloquence and melancholic disposition added the lyrical and sensuous dimension. Who knew better than Keats the ache of wanting so desperately something you cannot have? Did he not yearn for the sweet nectar of life, and was denied to taste the very drink? Having died so young from consumption, did he not feel on his own skin the transience of everything which hurts like knives piercing your chest, and therefore nurtured beauty in his verses. Her is what his beautiful poetic vision tells us of Isabella and Lorenzo falling in love:

“They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,

With every eve deeper and tenderer still…”

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but he, like many other artists, accepted their style and subject matter. He too dipped his paint brush into the paint of dreams, and painted scenes from mythology, Medieval romances, love and longing. Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from poetry and even though for Rossetti Dante was God, we could rightfully say that John Keats was placed on a pedestal. Out of all English poets of Romanticism, Keats was the most lyrical, the one who emphasised the greatness of beauty. This ideal brought him together with the Pre-Raphaelites. It is very likely that Waterhouse had Keats’s and not Boccaccio’s version of the story in mind when he painted this painting. A tale of sad love was perfect for a Pre-Raphaelite canvas; before Waterhouse, both Rossetti with his infatuations with Dante’s Beatrice and her death, and Millais’ with his paintings such as ‘A Huguenot’ tackled the subject.

Keats’s poem “Isabella” is absolutely beautiful, but these verses are perhaps my favourite and tell us about the growing love between Isabella and Lorenzo:

“Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,

 Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart

Only to meet again more close, and share      

 The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.

She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair

 Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart…”

Keats’s verses and the Pre-Raphaelite canvases both possess sensuality in abundance: Keats’s rich, delicate yet passionate descriptions match perfectly with the vibrantly coloured, richly textured and emotionally charged paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Out of all the stories I’ve read from “Decameron” this one is my favourite because underneath the sad tale of love scenario, which always appeals my romantic whimsy, it has a strong dark and macabre mood. I mean, the girl weeps and adoringly gazes at the pot of basil, knowing that the head of her lover is buried in it. Can you imagine the head which used to belong to a beautiful man she loved slowly rotting in the pot, his hair mingling with the roots of basil… It’s eerie and kind of revolting, and I say this with a creepy smile on my face because it appeals to me at the same time. John Keats, on the other hand, focused on the sensuality of the story and its melancholy, veiling it in beauty: rose petals, zephyrs, soft lips and sad gazes, everything is ripe, warmth, fragrant, in bloom. And this is how he ends the poem:

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,

Imploring for her Basil to the last.

No heart was there in Florence but did mourn

In pity of her love, so overcast.

And a sad ditty of this story born

From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:

Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,

“To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

So, happy birthday, John Keats!

A Vision of a Russian Artist by Nikolai V. Gogol

21 Feb

A few days ago I read a story by Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) called Nevsky Prospekt (or Nevsky Avenue), first published in 1835. It was very interesting all together, not merely because I love Russian literature and Gogol’s other stories, but because the main character is an artist! The story begins and ends with a description of Nevsky Prospekt; firstly, readers get acquainted with the sorts of people who can be seen there, and lastly, lies and superficiality of all those ‘creatures’ are revealed. Gogol himself wrote: ‘But strangest of all are the incidents that take place of Nevsky Avenue. Oh, do not trust that Nevsky Avenue! (…) For all is a deceit, all is a dream, all is not what it seems. (…) It lies at all times, does Nevsky Avenue, but most of all when night hovers over it in a thick mass, picking out the white from the dun-coloured houses, and all the town thunders and blazes with lights  and thousands of carriages come driving from the bridges, the outriders shouting and jogging up and down on their horses, and when the devil himself lights all the street lamps to show everything in anything but its true colours.

The story evokes the mood of the 18th century Sentimental novels, so it’s filled with irony, and mocks the pathetic and romantic main character and his final disillusionment. I highly recommend you to read it, and if you don’t, it’s your loss. And now the part of the story which describes Russian artists at the time:

1830-33. The Last Day of Pompeii is a large canvas painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov in 1830-33.The Last Day of Pompeii by Russian artist Karl Bryullov in 1830-33.

This young man belonged to a class of people so rare in our country as to be looked upon as phenomenon. These people are no more citizens of St.Petersburg than the people we see in a dream are part of the world of reality. This quite exceptional class of people is particularly uncommon in a city where the inhabitants are either Civil servants, shopkeepers, or German artisans. He was an artist. A strange phenomenon, is it not? A St.Petersburg artist! An artist in the land of snows! An artist in the land of the Finns, where everything is wet, flat, pale, monotonous, grey, misty!… These artists are not at all like the Italian artists, proud and fiery, like Italy and her skies; on the contrary, they are mostly inoffensive, meek men, shy and easygoing, devoted to their art in an unassuming way, drinking their tea with a couple of friends in a small room, modestly discussing their favourite subject, and satisfied with the minimum of food and comfort. They employ some old beggar woman for their model, keeping her posing for six full hours just to transfer her impassive, numb and miserable expression on the canvas. They like to paint interiors of their rooms with every kind of litter lying around: plaster-of-Paris hands and feet, coffee coloured with dust and age, a broken easel, a discarded palette, a friend playing the guitar, walls covered with paint, and an open window through which you can catch a glimpse of the pale Neva and fishermen in red shirts. Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint – the indelible imprint of the north. But for all that they labour over their pictures with enjoyment. They are very often men of talent, and if they were breathing the air of Italy their talent would probably have opened up as freely, as widely, and as splendidly as a plant that has been taken out into the open air after being kept indoors for a long time. They are generally rather timid folk…

1876. Viktor Vanetsov - Moving HouseViktor Vanetsov, Moving House, 1876

I couldn’t really decide which painting should accompany the text, so I put both. The first painting, The Last Day of Pompeii, was painted by Karl Bryullov, at the same time the story was published, and it was much appreciated by both Gogol and Pushkin. And the other evokes the sentence ‘Everything they paint has a greyish, muddy tint – the indelible imprint of the north‘, which makes it relevant as well.

Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse

3 Apr

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.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse 11896. Hylas and the Nymphs – John William Waterhouse, Manchester Art Gallery

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.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail

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.

1896. Hylas and the Nymphs - John William Waterhouse Detail 2

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.

So clear

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. Ondine Bath Dew1975. 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.

1921. Les Modes (Paris) May 1921 'Nymphe' robe du soir de la Maison Agnes1921. Les Modes (Paris) May, ‘Nymphe’

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.