Study for a Nymph in Hylas and the Nymphs

John William Waterhouse - Study for a Nymph in Hylas and the Nymphs
Study for a Nymph in Hylas and the Nymphs,
1896, charcoal, white chalk and pencil, 42 x 32 cm.

This recently rediscovered drawing was made in preparation for one of Waterhouse’s most famous paintings, Hylas and the Nymphs (Manchester City Art Gallery) painted in 1896 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897. The picture depicts a wooded glade and a pool clogged with lilies, from which a group of naked water-nymphs rises to tempt a young man into the black waters. The narrative was taken from the thirteenth Idyll of the poet Theocritus, describing the story of the beloved companion of Hercules, Prince Hylas, son of King Theiodamas of the Dryopians. Hylas and Hercules travelled on the Argo with Jason and the Argonauts in their quest to find the Golden Fleece. On their return from Colchis with their prize of the Golden Fleece and with Princess Medea, the Argonauts stopped at Mysia and Hylas was sent to find water at the spring of Dryope. ‘He was seized, they asserted, by the nymphs of the stream to the banks of which he had strayed; and was lost to human haunts because these water goddesses, enamoured of his beauty, kept him a prisoner beneath the waters.’ (‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, Studio, Vol. 10, May 1897, p.244)

In Theocritus’ narrative, the number of nymphs is not specified and other classical sources of the myth, including those given by Ovid and Apollonius Rhodios, suggest that there was only one naiad (the Greek word for a water-nymph). Waterhouse chose to surround his prince with seven nymphs, the same number of sirens that surround Ulysses’ ship in his first major painting depicting mythological femme-fatales, Ulysses and the Sirens of 1891 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). For each of the youthful nymphs Waterhouse made drawings from favourite models; one study depicts the two girls on the far right (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) whilst another depicts the girl in the centre lifting her hair (private collection). The present drawing depicts the girl holding out pearls to Hylas in the painting, her apologetic expression being typical of the artist’s seductresses who are deadly but reluctant and repentant.

Although the painting was generally warmly-received by the critics and has continued to be one of the artist’s most popular pictures, the correspondent for The Times (1 May 1897, p.10) criticised the fact that the nymphs all looked alike. This is rather unfair as, although they share a similar ‘look’, they are individually beautiful. Elizabeth Prettejohn has suggested that; ‘Drawings and close study of the faces, suggest that Waterhouse may have used at least two models, but the uncanny resemblance among the faces is crucial to the hypnotic power of the scene, and its supernatural resonances.’ (J.W. Waterhouse – The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, exhibition catalogue for the Groninger Museum, Royal Academy and Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2008-2010, p.134)

Waterhouse painted subjects of powerful emotion and drama, often with an erotic charge. The expressions of his women are beguiling and intense, as demonstrated by the mesmerising eyes of the girl in this drawing. His subjects were usually romantic and sometimes tragic and in the hands of a lesser artist the narratives could be cloying and sentimental. However his way of painting and drawing was energetic, modern and robust and his pictures are always enlivened by much more than a desire to paint pretty subjects. This draughtsmanship in this drawing demonstrates his great artistic spontaneity. There is nothing hesitant or lacking in conviction in his pencil strokes and he has set down no more than he needs to convey the grace of the figure and the face. As Anthony Hobson observed; ‘Waterhouse left a large number of superb drawings of heads, and this constant practice suggests that the personality of the model was one of his major sources of inspiration.’(Anthony Hobson, JW Waterhouse, 1992, p.57) The identity of the models who posed for Waterhouse has been the subject of much speculation. Several names have been suggested but as the faces that appear in the paintings of the 1890s closely resemble those from the late 1910s without aging, it is likely that Waterhouse chose a series of models who conformed to a particular type of physiognomy.

– From Sotheby’s catalogue.