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Waterhouse, the seductive symbolist: despite its title, the Royal Academy's exhibition on J.W. Waterhouse is more convincing when it presents the painter in the context of the Symbolists rather than the Pre-Raphaelites.


When I was young, I had a poster of Hylas and the Nymphs by J.W. Waterhouse on my bedroom wall. I've been trying to remember what my teenage self liked so much about it (Fig. 1). The models for the nymphs were pretty, sexy girls, and I enjoyed that, of course. I doubt that, at that age, I comprehended the parallel Waterhouse was drawing between sex and death, but I did like the painting's sense of danger: the urgency of the foreground nymphs' feathery caresses and the hungry looks of the two behind them that hint at appetites stranger and scarier than lust. Most of all, though, I think I relished its 'uncanny' quality. The nymphs, white as water-lilies, luminous against the dark green vegetation and the almost-black of the water, seem to have bobbed up from unexpected depths like corpses. Hylas, momentarily disarmed by their naked beauty, plainly isn't going to understand his situation until it's far too late and he's thrashing about in the water.

So I wondered, nearly 40 years later and before I saw this exhibition, whether my passionate adolescent enthusiasm would stand up to adult critical scrutiny. What would Waterhouse's paintings amount to? Might they seem just a bit silly? Were they any more than the sum of their (albeit superbly decorative) parts? And would a whole exhibition devoted to such instantly recognisable pictures turn out to be tiresomely repetitive? I need not have worried.

It is fitting that the Royal Academy should be the British venue for this first major exhibition of his work (it opened in Groningen and will tour to Montreal), for Waterhouse was an Academy man to his backbone. He was born in Rome in 1849, the son of painters, and entered the Royal Academy schools in 1870. He exhibited at the Academy every summer from 1874 until his death in 1917 with the exception of 1890 and 1915, and even taught in the schools himself between 1887 and 1908. It is an interesting question, though, how far Waterhouse, who spent his career within the Academy, is describable as an 'academic' painter. The exhibition shows him marginally but repeatedly transgressing the boundaries of the academic, gently but firmly pushing out the limits of what was permissible.

Sensibly, because the development of his style was so gradual (the effect of this sameness is cumulative, rather than repetitive; I need not have worried), the exhibition is organised chronologically and each subtle shift is perceptible as we progress from room to room. We see him first, in the gallery devoted to 'youthful experiments', as a precocious imitator of Alma Tadema. The next room, 'building a career', includes Waterhouse's essay in the Oriental exotic, Consulting the Oracle (1884), which is also an early exploration of the themes of magic and mysticism to which he would return again and again. But the star-turn in this gallery is certainly St Eulalia (Fig. 2), a grim experiment with French-style academic neo-classicism that secured Waterhouse's election as an Associate of the Royal Academy. Its warmest tones arc some rather chilly pinks. Eulalia is depicted flat on her back, ashen amid the miraculous snow-fan that has extinguished the flames of her martyrdom, and the dove that flew out of her mouth in the moment of her death ascends heavenwards against a steel-grey sky. The extreme foreshortening of her figure makes most sense if our eyelevel is not much more than a foot above the bottom of the canvas. Waterhouse demonstrates with impressive panache his confidence that the picture would be placed 'on the line', which in the RA'S dense floor-to-ceiling Victorian hang would have represented an accolade in itself.


The paintings in the exhibition's third section are the most spectacular. They include Waterhouse's largest picture--Mariamne (1887), recently cleaned and looking splendid--and his most enduringly popular, The Lady of Shalott (1888). The latter, with its clear references to Millais's Ophelia (1851-52) and Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (c. 1863-70) and its stylistic debt to Bastien-Lepage and French Naturalism, goes some way towards justifying the exhibition's crowd-pulling subtitle, 'the modern Pre-Raphaelite', but really Waterhouse is a Pre-Raphaelite only in the loosest sense and modern in a way that requires explanation.

As Robert Upstone suggests in his catalogue essay, Waterhouse's work can best be understood as a part of the European Symbolist Movement. Elizabeth Prettejohn, in her essay, proposes a reading of his work from about The Lady of Shalott onwards--suggested by R.E.D. Sketchley's short 1909 monograph and indebted to Alex Owen's invaluable book The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (2004)--that makes sense of Waterhouse's art in the context of the 'mystical revival' of the 1880s and '90s. These two perspectives, the Symbolist and the Occultist, bring the work in the last two galleries to life.

At first sight, these late works are less dramatic than the bravura displays of power that followed his election as an ARA. Their palette is richer and warmer, their handling softer. But so far from the 'no-more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts' that I had feared, they offer a distinct sense of 'more-than-meets-the-eye' that accords well with both the delight in the enigmatic of the Symbolist and the instinct for secrecy of the occultist. Subjects recur--girls, flowers, water, weaving--that may hint at a cult of Persephone, or may not. As Prettejohn admits, occult societies tend to be secretive and hard data is missing. This is an unfamiliar version of the modern, but it allows an understanding of Waterhouse as an artist on the edge of the establishment and on the cusp of a new age that is much more stimulating than the idea of him as the Pre-Raphaelite afterthought most people still take him to be.

Simon Poe is writing a book on the Victorian painter J.R. Spencer Stanhope.

'J. W. Waterhouse: the Modern Pre-Raphaelite', Royal Academy of Arts, London, 27 June-13 September (+ 44 (0) 20 7300 8000); Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1 October-7 February 2010; Groninger Museum, Groningen, 14 December 2008-3 May Catalogue by Elizabeth Prettqohn, et al., ISBN 9781905-711369 (cloth), 35 [pounds sterling] (Royal Academy).
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS
Author:Poe, Simon
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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