Follow Us on Twitter

JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite

Exhibition preview

A MAJOR retrospective exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917), JW Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, will be on display at the Royal Academy of Arts from until September 13, 2009.

The exhibition, which features over 40 paintings from both public and private collections, includes such highlights as The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate), Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 (Manchester Art Gallery), Circe Invidiosa: Circe Poisoning the Sea, 1892 (The Art Gallery of South Australia), and from the Royal Academy Collection, A Mermaid, 1900.

These works are accompanied by studies in oil, chalk and pencil; period photographs; sketchbooks; and the volumes of Tennyson and Shelley in which Waterhouse drew sketches.

The retrospective will consider how Waterhouse’s paintings reflect his engagement with contemporary issues ranging from antiquarianism and the classical heritage to occultism and the ‘New Woman’. It will include almost all the paintings which made him one of the most successful and critically acclaimed artists of the day.

This will be the first major Waterhouse show to have been presented in the United Kingdom since the late 1970s.

Waterhouse was born to British parents in Rome in 1849. That same year, the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) delivered their manifesto for a new, ‘reformed’ art which challenged the ‘official’ art promoted through the Academy’s teaching and Annual Exhibitions.

Waterhouse inherited the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s taste for Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare, but also drew inspiration from classical mythology interpreted by Homer and Ovid. Although his images are perceived as serene, they belie a Romantic fascination with intense human passions.

During the 1890s, WAterhouse gravitated toward images of metamorphosis which made subtle references to contemporary Symbolist preoccupations: lily-like nymphs seducing Hylas into their pool; naiads discovering the severed head of Orpheus singing as it floats in the river; and Echo and Narcissus pining away.

Such explicit subjects gave way after 1900 to more ambiguously titled, mythically inspired scenes of maidens picking flowers. These were succeeded by a decisive return to the emotionally more highly charged “Pre-Raphaelite” narratives as Miranda – The Tempest, Tritram and Isolde and the Decameron.

Waterhouse’s richly coloured canvases, often large in scale, deliver a visual impact that is both compelling and unprecedented. Even seen individually, his canvases astonish viewers with their lively brushwork, dramatic compositions, and deft draftmanship. His painterly manner and adherence to three-dimensional space distinguish him from his Pre-Raphaelite forerunners.

This exhibition will examine the notion of Waterhouse as a “belated” Pre-Raphaelite who discovered Millais’ Ophelia (Tate, 1851-52) in 1886, at exactly the same moment that he was absorbing the spontaneity of newer French art through William Logsdail, Frank Bramley and the Newlyn and Primrose Hill Schools.

The twentieth century scholars who reclaimed the Pre-Raphaelites often marginalised Waterhouse for such seemingly contradictory tendencies, yet it is these which have endeared him to viewers today.

Waterhouse enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Royal Academy of Arts. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1870 as a probationary student of sculpture before turning to painting and his work was accepted at the prestigious annual Summer Exhibition in 1974, when he was aged 25.

Eleven years later, the exhibition of his painting of the young Christian martyr, St Eulalia, won him election as an Associate Member of the institution, a distinction which was followed by his election as a full Royal Academician in 1895. He marked his entry to the artistic elite by depositing A Mermaid with the institution as his Diploma Work, and his commitment to the Academy as a whole by teaching regularly in the RA Schools.

An accompanying catalogue captures the visual impact of Waterhouse’s richly coloured and compelling canvases. The exhibition’s curators – Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Robert Upstone and MaryAnne Stevens – explore the artist’s distinctive role in the history of British art, his engagement with the pictorial innovations that were taking place in France during the later nineteenth century, and the artist’s particular vision of femininity.

Tickets: £9 – full price; £8 – Registered Disabled and 60+ years; £7 – NUS/ISIC cardholders; £4 – 12 to 18 years and Income Support; £3 – 8 to 11 years; Free for 7 years and under.

Times: 10am to 6pm daily (last admission at 5.30pm).

Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J OBD

Telephone (to book tickets in advance): 0844 209 1919