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John William Waterhouse: The Artist of Narrative Pictures


Depicting classical, mythical and literary scenes that show a true mix between Neoclassical themes and Romantic style and creating beautiful works of art which illustrate tales of love and tragedy, the English painter of the Victorian era, John William Waterhouse, is acclaimed for his large-scale paintings of Classical mythological subjects.

Known for his association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Waterhouse was born into a family of artists in the city of Rome and baptized on 6 April 1849. His father moved the family back to England in 1850. Often helping in his father’s studio, Waterhouse gained skills as an artist at a young age. In 1870, he began studying at the Royal Academy in London, at first pursuing sculpture.

By 1874, Waterhouse had switched to painting, as evident by the painted work (Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, 1874) that he exhibited at the Royal Academy that summer. Producing over 200 paintings during his lifetime, Waterhouse first found recognition when his painting, “Consulting the Oracle” was bought by Sir Henry Tate in 1886. During this period, he also traveled extensively through Europe, drawing inspiration for his paintings there.

Waterhouse’s paintings were distinct from their rich, glowing color. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, he depicted many dramatic, beautiful women- damsels in distress, enchantresses, or female fatales. The tragic figure Ophelia was a subject he turned to three times (1889, 1894, 1910), each painting capturing her in a different moment of her story as she came close to death.

Waterhouse also painted more than once the main figure in Tennyson’s 1832 poem “The Lady of Shalott”, a subject also prized by the Pre-Raphaelites. In his 1888 painting, Waterhouse depicted her seated in a boat floating downstream to her imminent death.

Waterhouse continued producing works of the mythological and literary themes throughout the 1890s and 1900s, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy, where he had been honored as an associate member in 1885 and then a full Royal Academician in 1895.

Waterhouse moved to the St. John’s Wood area of London in 1901 and started to teach at the St. John’s Wood School around this time. He was also a member of the art club in the area, along with several other important artists of the period.

After several years of increasing frailty, John William Waterhouse died of cancer on February 10, 1917, at the age of 68. His virtually unchanging style and subject matter went out of vogue with the Modern trends of the turn of the 20th century, but a revived interest in his work came about in the late 20th century.


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