Capturing the Look of Love; Waterhouse’s Women.


 The long neck is bent, the skin pale, the gaze serious and sustained, sad yet determined, the lips are slightly parted, the body lithe, nubile, not a child but not yet a woman.  Waterhouse’s depictions of women express an ambiguity, an inscrutability, a mysterious, thoughtful reflection that enthrals and captivates. They seem to float endlessly between dream and reality, never betraying their secret.  The look is vulnerable, fearful; it evokes a timeless adolescent beauty, a touching innocence.  But the young women in Waterhouse’s paintings are not innocent.  They are comfortable with their nakedness.  And the parted lips and lingering stare express an erotic intensity, a longing, aching melancholy that demands satisfaction while arousing conflicts of excitement and fear. .    

Waterhouse’s women are unattainable.  Romance, after all, is a fantasy, a make believe, so far removed from reality that it generates an ineluctable sadness.  Waterhouse’s heroines may escape reality, but we know that no happiness will come out of it.  The sad beauty of A Mermaid (1900) is almost unbearable. Her yearning gaze evokes an overwhelming desire to comfort her, but at the same time, she is so totally absorbed in her own pathos, that she can never love any man nor indeed be loved by them.  The shell beside her contains pearls, the tears of the drowned sailors, who have given their lives in pursuit or her poignant beauty. The pale skin of her lower abdomen shades off into the impossible slimy muscular tail of a fish.  This combination of promise and withdrawal,  the handmaidens of sexual dysfunction and fear of intimacy, promote a state of frustration and addiction. Such women, beautiful, vain, narcissistic, drive men mad with desire.     

The Lady of Shallott (1888), Waterhouse’s most enduring image, is condemned to view the world through a mirror and never enjoy love.  For years, she refuses to submit, but no sooner than she gives way to desire for Lancelot – not the first to fall in this way – then she has to die for it.  The mounting erotic charge that builds to a dramatic conclusion is so perfectly narrated in Tennyson’s relentless metre, like Ravel’s Bolero in words; prohibition, desire, surrender and death – the haunting allegory of illicit sexual longing. 


She left the web; she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume.

She looked down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide,

The mirror cracked from side to side,

‘The curse has come upon me’, cried

The Lady of Shalott.


Tennyson was such a horny old goat!

There is a world weariness, a wistful, troubled melancholy about Waterhouse.  His images capture with painterly symbolism the complex aesthetic of  emotional narrative with an intensity few can match. Even the innocence of Wildflowers (1902), evinces the wind of change that is about to sweep the bright young girl away into a darker sensuality and passion.  The same feelings are evoked in Psyche Opening the Golden Box (1903).   

But other images express a more disingenuous look of lust, a need to possess and exploit, a dangerous narcissistic love that has the power to destroy men. The Naiad (1893), who emerges from the stream upon the sleeping youth knows what she wants, the sex appeal, the power.  La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893) kneels naked and vulnerable by her palely loitering knight, but she has bent him to her gaze, wound her hair around his neck.  He is lost!      


I met a lady in the meads

Full beautiful – a fairy’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light

And her eyes were wild.

John Keats (1820)


That same look is there in his depiction of Hylas and the Nymphs (1896).  Look at the confident unblinking hypnotic stare off the lead nymph, as she gently pulls at Hylas arm to unbalance him and draw him into the water.  Look at the dark intensity of her sister’s eyes.  Do we feel joy for Hylas in his bliss?  No. There is something disturbing, almost alien, in those looks.  Hylas will surely drown in their embrace.

Other paintings take the theme of la femme fatale, the ruthless sex goddess, a stage further.  Lycius, encased in armour, gazes down into the imploring eyes of Lamia (1905), her snake skin wrapped around her, who sucks the blood of those she seduces in vengeance for her betrayal. There is no fury like that of a woman scorned.  And regard the deep evil green composition of Circe Individiosa (1892), who, enraged by the refusal of the sea deity, Glaucus to desert his beloved Scylla, poisons the sea in revenge. ‘If I can’t have him, then nobody else will’.  The look is ruthless, cold and lethal.  And here’s the sorceress, Circe (1891) again, clad in a transparent grey-blue diaphanous gown, fragile and vulnerable, but with a hauteur that brooks no resistance as she holds aloft both her wand and the cup that will subdue Ulysses.          

So is Waterhouse exploring the fascination and fear that Victorian men had of female sexuality?  In ‘Consulting the Oracle’ (1884), seven middle eastern women listen with mounting excitement as the priestess relays the pronouncements that emanate from a shrunken skull.  These are not innocent maidens; they are impetuous, seductive, irrational, everything that Victorian women weren’t.  Victorian men had double standards; at home they might have respected their wife’s sexual repression, yet outside the home they were excited by the erotic assertiveness of the new woman.     

There was, nevertheless, deep concern about the independence of women.  For centuries, society has sought to confine women’s sexuality as a dangerous thing that can entrap, weaken and destroy men. Waterhouse is a man of his time.  He started painting women at a time when female sexuality was taboo and romance always had tragic consequences.  The Lady of Shallott is a ‘femme fragile’, who devotes herself to domestic duties and succumbs to ‘Irritable Weakness’.  Yet his time also witnessed a braver, more dangerous aspect of women. He was still painting in England when the Suffragettes were chaining themselves to railings. Consulting The Oracle celebrated what he saw as the emotional and sexual emancipation of women.    

He was also working during the early years of psychoanalysis,  Freud and later Jung were fascinated by the rich symbolism of myth, the archetypes.  They understood the terrible power of the seductress; Kali, Salome, Marta Hari, Isolde, the erotic enchantment that can enslave and entrap by the addictive combination of gratification and withdrawal.   Fear, as Jung recognised, is the antithesis of love, yet gains its power through the language of love. 

But why is Waterhouse more popular now than ever before?  Is it that we live a narcissistic world of make believe, romance and vanity?  Are  modern relationships based  less on the comforts of friendship and affection than on the manipulations of romance and fantasy?  Is this why relationships do not last as long and marriage as an institution is declining?  Have we become slaves to the deceptions of Facebook?  And don’t we have our own Pre-Raphaelite beauty?  A veritable cult has grown up around the haunting image of Kiera Knightly.  

Waterhouse weaves a wonderful spell, creates the impossible romance.  He glorifies the unattainable woman, who is worth it.  His work speaks to a deep-seated yearning for the merger of souls with The One who is our destiny.  But such make believe is so often doomed. Sooner or later, reality will disappoint and ‘The One’ will come to bear an uncanny resemblance to your mother.


‘I look at you in sheer despair

And see my mother standing there.’