John William Waterhouse and his mysterious models
Article by Mary Vareli
John William Waterhouse was a British painter, born by British parents in Rome in 1849, known for his Pre-Raphaelite style paintings, combined with impressionist elements. He was a distinguished classical, romanticist painter, whose inspiration was drawn from mythological characters, especially Greek and Arthurian legend, history, poetry and literature. What is admired and memorable in his work is an idealized, easily recognized style that is also related to his choice of models fulfilling his idealized female figure and face. The names of the models and their families have come to light only in recent years. As Peter Trippi notices “… it seems to me Waterhouse’s ideal type was very much about what we call an English rose style.”(Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, 2002).
Influences & Early Steps
Waterhouse’s parents, William and Isabella Waterhouse, filled their son with love for the world of art from an early age. 1849, the year he was born, was the same year that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt first caused a stir in the London art scene. In 1854, the Waterhouses returned to England and moved to South Kensington, London. Their house was near the newly founded Victoria and Albert Museum, so Waterhouse, or “Nino” as he was nicknamed, spent his time sketching artworks he liked in the museum.
In 1870 he joined the Royal Academy of Art, before doing so Waterhouse assisted his father in his studio. Fortunately, it was easy for Waterhouse to exhibit in the Royal Academy right after he enrolled, unlike other painters sharing the same style in the past. The Pre Raphaelite brotherhood had its breakup several decades ago, but they had paved the way for many painters to come. However, their style of painting and techniques were way out of fashion in the English art scene. Richard Dorment finds that William “was sorely lacking the intensity and emotion of the great Pre-Raphaelites’’. Opinions vary as to this. Some critics, having in mind the indisputable fact that the three founders of the academy were first act artists, claim that imitators and followers were of secondary value.
The majority of critics, though, passionately support that “the generations of painters that grew out of the Pre-Raphaelite milieu”, for example Frederic Leighton, Watts, Albert Moore and Edward Burne – Jones, succeeded in fusing the moral gravity and emotional intensity of Pre-Raphaelitism with ideal classical forms.
There is a third category of critics, though, that find no difference between the work of the founders of PRB and the painters that followed, mostly focusing on Atkinson Grimshaw, J.W. Goddard, Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter, Edwin Long and Frank Dicksee.
Waterhouse entered the Royal Academy School in 1871, first trained as a sculptor. Fellow students and companions at that time were Sir Alfred Gilbert and Sir Hamo Thornycroft, two artists that were later to become the most distinguished artists of their generation. However, Waterhouse had other plans. He decided to drop sculpture and change his direction to painting. Late-19th-century British sculpture was quite popular, while the interest in painting had declined.
Waterhouse’s decision to exhibit for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1874 seemed commercially unsuccessful. However his painting Sleep and his Half-brother Death was a success and Waterhouse would exhibit at the annual exhibition every year until 1916, with the exception of 1890 and 1915. His early works resemble more the style of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton. His 1876 piece, After the Dance, was given the prime position in that year’s summer exhibition. After this his paintings typically became larger and larger in size. Waterhouse painted primarily in oils, yet he was elected to the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour in 1883, resigning in 1889.
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 he 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.
In 1895 Waterhouse was elected to the status of full Academician. He taught at the St. John’s Wood Art School, joined the St John’s Wood Arts Club, and served on the Royal Academy Council. Though this was not his initial spirit, his painting revealed more and more a growing interest in themes associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly tragic or powerful femmes fatales
Observing the intensity of the look of the model in the painting The Lady of Shalott we realize that some of his paintings captured the intensity of the models experience, models whose modest background was not at all preparing them to enter the world their beauty granted them.
The distressed Lady of Shalott with the lady coursing toward Tennyson’s “many towered Camelot”, is another characteristic painting of Waterhouse and of course a very popular romantic subject, as well as Ophelia, that is as disheveled as Millais’, but depicted before her untimely death. 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 from the 1888 Academy exhibition.
Hylas and the Water Nymphs is one of his most characteristic paintings, as Terri Hardin points out “ while polite society eschewed direct references to sexuality, fair license was given to the undraped female figure in classical subjects, making them desirable to both artists and collectors in the Victorian period.” “… Waterhouse transcended the particularities of individual models to present his own idealized, instantly recognizable type … Older contemporaries, such as Rossetti, Poynter and Moore, had devised their own types.” (Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, 2002)
Other examples of paintings depicting a femme fatale are Circe Invidiosa, Cleopatra, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and several versions of Lamia.
Models & Later Life
It is worth mentioning that Waterhouse was a quiet man with none of the “private passions” and turbulent home life, characterizing many of the Pre-Raphaelites. He used to be a very private man that has not left journals, or information, about him. The models appearing in his paintings, according to the latest studies are the following.
Jessie Waterhouse was the artist’s sister, probably appearing in the paintings Portrait of a Young Woman, 1875 and Whispered Words, 1875, according to the research Peter Trippi conducted in the catalogue entry of Whispered Words. Unfortunately there are no photos of Jessie, just the poem that refers to Waterhouse’s sister in the exhibition catalogue and several other painting bearing a resemblance.
Esther Kenworthy Waterhouse, the artist’s wife, a painter herself specialized in flower painting. “On September 8, 1883, John William Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy at the parish church of St Mary, Ealing. He was then thirty-four and she twenty-five…” (Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849-1917, 1980). They had two children, but both died in early childhood. After his marriage in 1883 he took up residence at the Primrose Hill Studios, later occupants of the studios were Arthur Rackham and Patrick Caulfield.
Gwendoline Gunn was a friend of the family, probably the most characteristic of Waterhouse’s models appearing in paintings such as Psyche Opening the Golden Box (1903), Nymphs finding the Head of Orpheus (1900), Psyche Opening the Door into Cupid’s Garden (1904) and The Enchanted Garden (1916). She was the daughter of Marcus and Mary Eliza Gunn who also spent holidays at Croyde. Gwendoline was an intimate friend and took care of Esther until 1944, when the latter died.
Some more model names came into light, researchers hope they will soon find more information. Several of these models also posed for other painters of the time. Rupert Mass wrote, it “is likely to be that he chose his models as subjects of his romantic vision, not that the models themselves were the object of it, and that is why his beautiful yearning girls conform to a type”.
The names are: Alice Arter, also posing for Burne-Jones and Abbey. Ethel Bantock and Harry Beresford, their names were found on the artist’s notes, appearing in the painting Echo and Narcissus (1903). Also, Angelo Colarossi the Italian model in the painting The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883); the right man in the background. ‘Miss Kate Double’, actually a woman, appearing as two men sleeping in the painting Sleep and His Half-Brother Death (1874). ‘Miss Muriel Foster’ is seen in the drawing Study for Lamia, a sketch with the inscription, ‘Miss Muriel Foster’ found in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. Beatrice Hackman is believed to be the model in the painting The Soul of the Rose, as it was recently revealed by a member of her family in a forum. This sensitive woman used to visit Waterhouse’s grave site after his death.
‘Miss Lloyd’ was “a professional artists’ model who sat for several well-known Victorian painters, including Sir Frank Dicksee and Lord Leighton. Agnes Richardson, model for both Waterhouse and Herbert Draper and finally Edith Richardson, in the study Head of a Girl.
Waterhouse was seriously ill with cancer by 1915. He died two years later, During the final decade of his life, Waterhouse continued painting. From 1908-1914 he painted a series of paintings based upon the Persephone legend. They were followed by pictures based upon literature and mythology in 1916 (Miranda, Tristram and Isolde). One of his final works was The Enchanted Garden, left unfinished, and now in the collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. John William Waterhouse in total produced 118 paintings, his grave can be found at Kensal Green Cemetery in London and is still visited by a large number of people who were touched by the beauty of his work.
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Hardin T., The Pre – Raphelites, inspiration from the past., Todri Publications, 1996.
Hobson A., The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849-1917, Rizzoli 1980.
Kerr J., Letter to Miss Lloyd, johnwilliamwaterhouse.com
Maas R., British Pictures, The Maas Gallery, 2006.
Sullivan K.E. , Pre-Raphaelites, 1996.
Toll S., Herbert Draper 1863-1920; A Life Study, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2003.
Trippi P., J.W. Waterhouse, Phaidon Press, 2002.
A correction submitted by Cathy Baker “The woman next to Angelo Colarossi isn’t the Muriel Foster who’s name is inscribed on the Waterhouse sketch from the Yale Center of British Art. The photograph is of the opera singer, Muriel Foster.”
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