William Waterhouse was an English artist most famous for his paintings
of female characters from Greek and Arthurian mythology. Waterhouse was
one of the final Pre-Raphaelite artists, being most productive in the
latter decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, long
after the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Because of this, John William Waterhouse has been referred to as "the modern Pre-Raphaelite", and incorporated techniques borrowed from the French Impressionists into his work.
Painter of classical, historical, and literary subjects. John William Waterhouse was born in 1849 in Rome, where his father worked as a painter. He was referred to as "Nino" throughout his life. When John was 5 years old the family moved to South Kensington near to the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum. During his early years he studied under his father before entering the Royal Academy schools in 1870. His early works were of classical themes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton, and were exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Society of British Artists and the Dudley Gallery.
In 1874, at the age of 25, John William Waterhouse submitted the classical allegory "Sleep and His Half-Brother Death"( shown here) to the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. The painting was very well received, leading him to exhibit at the RA almost every year thereafter until his death in 1917. In 1883 John William Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art schoolmaster from Ealing who herself exhibited her own flower paintings at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. There is no record of the couple having children, though it is possible they lost a child at a young age.
After his marriage, John William Waterhouse took up residence at the Primrose Hill Studios (number 3, and later, number 6). Future occupants of the same Primrose Hill studios would include the artists Arthur Rackham and Patrick Caulfield. Waterhouse painted primarily in oils, yet he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolor in 1883, resigning in 1889.
In 1884, his Royal Academy submission "Consulting the Oracle" brought him favorable reviews; it was purchased by Sir Henry Tate, who also purchased "The Lady of Shalott" (shown below) from the 1888 Academy exhibition.
In 1885 John William Waterhouse was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and a full member in 1895. His RA diploma work was "A Mermaid". However, as this painting was not completed until 1900, Waterhouse offered his "Ophelia of 1888" as his temporary submission. This painting was 'lost' for most of the 20th century and it is now in the collection of Lord Lloyd Webber.
John William Waterhouse went from strength to strength in the London art scene, with his 1876 piece "After the Dance" being given the prime position in that year's summer exhibition. Perhaps due to his success, his paintings typically became larger and larger in size. In the mid-1880s Waterhouse began exhibiting with the Grosvenor Gallery and its successor, the New Gallery, as well as at provincial exhibitions in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Paintings of this period, such as Mariamne, were exhibited widely in England and abroad as part of the international symbolist movement.
In the 1890s Waterhouse began to exhibit portraits. In 1900 John William Waterhouse was the primary instigator of the Artists' War Fund, creating Destiny, and contributing to a theatrical performance. The pictures offered to the War Fund were auctioned at Christie's.
In 1901 he moved to St John's Wood and joined the St John's Wood Arts Club, a social organization that included Alma-Tadema and George Clausen. He also served on the advisory council of the St. John's Wood Art School where young and upcoming "neo Pre-Raphaelite" artists such as Byam Shaw numbered amongst his pupils.
One of Waterhouse's most famous paintings is The Lady of Shalott (shown here), a study of Elaine of Astolat, who dies of grief when Lancelot will not love her. He actually painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894, and 1916.
The Lady of Shalott" painting reveals Waterhouse's growing interest in themes associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly tragic or powerful femmes fatales, as well as plein-air painting. Other examples of paintings depicting a femme fatale are "Circe Invidiosa", "Cleopatra", "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", and several versions of "Lamia".
Another of Waterhouse's favorite subjects was Ophelia; the most famous of his paintings of Ophelia depicts her just before her death, putting flowers in her hair as she sits on a tree branch leaning over a lake. Like "The Lady of Shalott" and other Waterhouse paintings, it deals with a woman dying in or near water.
John William Waterhouse would paint Ophelia again in 1894 and 1909 or 1910, and planned another painting in the series, called "Ophelia in the Churchyard." Waterhouse could not finish the series of Ophelia paintings because he was gravely ill with cancer by 1915. John William Waterhouse died two years later, and his grave can be found at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.