The English painter John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917) was perhaps the only artist to have successfully reconciled the opposing forces of Classicism and Pre-Raphaelitism in late Victorian art. He followed the conventional path to success, becoming an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1885 and a full Academician in 1895. But he did not seem to care much for artistic factions, preferring to devote himself only to his work. Borrowing stylistic influences not only from the Pre-Raphaelites but also from his contemporaries, the Impressionists his artworks earned him admiration from all sides, and during the 1880s and ’90s his reputation rivalled even that of Leighton and Burne-Jones.
Waterhouse’s early work is much different in subtext than his later work. His early paintings are historically accurate representations of ordinary life in the ancient world. His painting Diogenes is a good example. The figures in the paintings are not Venus or the Nymphs but ordinary woman. This is characteristic of a materialistic conscience that has little faith in transcendence. At this point Waterhouse’s work was like Leighton’s, paintings of superficial women with fancy fans and umbrellas appealed to the bourgeois taste. In the latter part of the 1880s Waterhouse was “converted” to Pre-Raphaelitism.
Of all the works featured on this site, the first piece which I came to know was Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs. When I was 14, I found a reproduction of the painting in a book on fairies which I bought from a church rummage sale. In the original myth, Hylas was lured to his death by the Nymphs, but I did not read the painting that way, rather the Nymphs seem to have emerged from the depths of spiritual water. The enchanting Nymphs of the painting were from a richer time, apart from the trivialities of this world. Fortunately, I was influenced by the painting before I had contact with erotica. Rather than perceiving the image as a vehicle for an erotic fantasy, my experience of the painting gave me the inconsolable longing C.S. Lewis called Joy or what J.R.R. Tolkien called Recovery. The painting seems to have inspired the bathing Centaurette scene from Walt Disney’s classic Fantasia.
I recently had the reflection that praising is the very antithesis of cursing. In the past, the admiration of the beauty of women and girls was more openly expressed. Since contemporary mass culture only regards nudity in the context of vulgarity, the experience of human beauty is tarnished and its praise is prohibited. From my experience, artists are not encouraged to paint Nymphs as Waterhouse. Since expressions of sublime joy are not nurtured, transgression has become the norm. It’s acceptable to the Neo-bourgeois to praise the beauty of stars and clouds of the sky. It’s ok to reflect the beauty of the mountains and the trees. But unlike the old bourgeois of the 19th century, they impoverished in the appreciation of the greatest subject in creation, the human form.