Female head study for a nymph in Hylas and the Nymphs and study for the figure in Destiny

Recto: Female head study for a nymph in Hylas and the Nymphs, charcoal and pencil, 38.8 x 21.6 cm.
Verso: Study for the figure in Destiny, charcoal and pencil, 38.8 x 21.6 cm.

This sheet is a compelling reminder of how closely interconnected John William Waterhouse’s projects were during the mid to late 1890s. On one side is a powerfully realized head, most likely a preparatory study for one of his masterpieces, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), and specifically for the alluring nymphs at centre who rise from the water to tempt the ancient hero. Waterhouse surely knew how crucial the girls’ expressions and poses would be to maximizing his composition’s dramatic impact, so he seems to have worked particularly hard on perfecting their heads and upper bodies via numerous drawings like this.

On the reverse we find the same face sketched more faintly (and upside down), and more strikingly a nude girl standing while drinking from (or presenting?) a shallow cup. The latter is almost certainly an early imagining of the 1900 painting Destiny, in which a maiden clad in Renaissance-era clothing (but a more modern hairstyle) raises her cup in valediction to departing galleons.

These motifs’ intermingling underscores not only the fact that Waterhouse saw such sheets as practical working tools to turn over and re-use, but also his ongoing association of women with liquids, especially water. A chronological survey of his preparatory drawings makes it difficult to tell where he stopped composing one narrative (such as Hylas and the Nymphs) and began developing the next. This drawing of a head epitomizes that continuum: the gaze and angle evoke one of Hylas’s timeless nymphs, while her upswept hairstyle appears in Destiny, which was specifically intended to benefit widows and orphans of the (painfully modern) Boer War.


An Orange Garden

John William Waterhouse - An Orange Garden
An Orange Garden, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 37,5 cm.

The painting is a heretofore-unlocated canvas from a small group of picturesque, lushly colored genre scenes that J. W. Waterhouse painted, or at least conceived, in Capri during the late 1880s. This Italian island had become increasingly popular with artists from around the world for its beautiful scenery, sunny climate, and abundant models. Having been born in Rome, ‘Nino’ Waterhouse may even have been able to converse with the locals in Italian.

An Orange Garden depicts three models picking and gathering oranges, a continuation of the traditional view that women enjoy a particularly harmonious relationship with nature, and also a portent of the maidens-stretching-to-pick-flowers theme that Waterhouse would explore for the rest of his life. This composition showcases the artist’s lively brushwork and many hallmarks of his style, such as the stone staircase that connects the scene’s upper and lower halves, the subtle pink dress and the rich mauve headscarf that move our eye along that staircase, the trees’ twisting trunks and branches, the flowers planted in terracotta pots, the weathered surfaces of the stucco architecture, and the deft juxtaposition of whites and off-whites best admired in the youngest girl’s apron.

Waterhouse’s London dealer, Agnew’s, received An Orange Garden on 1 February 1890 and sold it just 19 days later to Dr. Alfred Palmer JP, a member of the family that owned the Reading-based bakers Huntley & Palmer. Around the same time, Palmer’s Berkshire neighbor, the financier Alexander Henderson, acquired from Agnew’sthe larger Orange Gatherers and went on to become Waterhouse’s most significant patron.


Mariana in the South

John William Waterhouse - Mariana in the South
Mariana in the South, 1897, oil on canvas, 134.5 x 86.3 cm.

Waterhouse took the scene from a verse in Tennyson’s poem inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Mariana, abandoned by her lover, is doomed to wait in solitude in a ‘moated grange’, a metaphor for longing and unfulfilled love.

‘Low on her knees herself she cast,
Before Our Lady murmur’d she;
Complaining, “Mother, give me grace
To help my of my weary load.”
And on the liquid mirror glow’d
The clear perfection of her face.’

Waterhouse includes visual details of Tennyson’s words, including the mirror, the religious painting on the wall, and old love letters. She gazes at her reflection with a forlorn expression, her youth and beauty are being wasted. The brushwork is loose and the colours are mostly dark, but the girl is pale and glowing, her red under-dress a vibrant coral colour. There is a Pre-Raphaelite-esque Medievalism about the painting, but like Waterhouse was never strictly speaking a member of the group. Like Burne-Jones and Leighton, he was connected with the Brotherhood, but did not adhere to the doctrines that the founding members set out.


Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses

John William Waterhouse - Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses
Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses, 1891, oil on canvas, 148 x 92 cm.

Waterhouse was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey to paint several other masterpieces, one of which is Circe” Offering the Cup to Ulysses. Circe” was a beautiful sorceress who turned mortals into animals by giving them a wine filled with an evil potion. Circe” used such a potion on Ulysses’ crew turning them into pigs while Ulysses AKA (Odysseus) was taking care of another matter. Ulysses learned of this and was able to attain a medicine from Hermes to prevent Circe”‘s potions from having an effect on him. He went to Circe”, who had him drink the potion to turn him into a pig as well, when it did not work Ulysses drew his sword and threatened Circe” who, in disbelief, begged him to forgive her.

Waterhouse portrays Circe”, cup in one hand, wand in the other, surrounded by purple flowers, the color of royalty, offering the potion to Ulysses. She thinks herself a queen. She sits on a golden throne, roaring lions depicted on each arm. By her side lies a pig, perhaps one of Ulysses’ men. There are other animals portrayed in the painting depicting other mortals who fell into Circe”‘s grasp, including a toad in the foreground and a duck which can be seen reflected in the left side of the mirror behind her. Also in the mirror, Ulysses himself can be seen fists clenched, ready to attack. – Kara Ross



John Willaim Waterhouse - Lamia
Lamia, 1905, oil on canvas, 144.7 x 90.2 cm.

Early in his career Waterhouse painted Graeco-Roman subjects in the manner of Alma-Tadema. However, he was later drawn to the romantic Pre-Raphaelite style, painting the Arthurian legends popularised by poets such as Tennyson. Lamia (a second version ‘Lamia and the soldier’ painted in 1905 is privately owned in London) was inspired by Keats’ celebrated poem of 1820, about a bridegroom who discovers on his wedding night that his bride is a monstrous half-serpent who preys on young men. As such, she is a classic femme fatale. The only visual clue to Lamia’s nature is the moulted snake-skin draped about her.