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John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse is best known for embracing the legacy of Pre-Raphaelite artists – a group of English poets, painters, and critics who rebelled against the art establishment and the mechanic approach to art first adopted by Mannerist artists. Instead, Pre-Raphaelite artists took inspiration from Early Renaissance painting and Romantic painters, championing artistic individuality and individual methods of depiction.

Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849 to parents, who were both painters. In 1854, the family returned to London, and in 1871 Waterhouse entered the Royal Academy of Arts. Waterhouse initially studied sculpture, but by 1874 he changed direction and fully devoted himself to painting. The artist’s early works were executed in an Academic style, influenced by painters Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton. He painted classical themes like Sleep and his Half-brother Death (1874), a painting that was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition. As he matured artistically, Waterhouse became closely associated with Pre-Raphaelite artists and adopted their style and choice of the subject matter. He began to draw inspiration from classical and romantic literature, painting scenes from Greek mythology, and the Arthurian cycle. One of his most famous paintings was The Lady of Shalott (1888), based on Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name. The poem derives from an Arthurian legend about Elaine of Astolat, a maiden who died of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. The subject appealed to Waterhouse who created an additional two paintings based on different verses from Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot (1894) and I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott (1915).

In the second half of the 1880s, the artist began experimenting with en plein air painting (a French term for painting outdoors). During the expeditions to Italy and the English countryside, he created a series of sketches and oil studies. These enhanced the potency of Waterhouse’s paintings, especially his treatment of landscape. This is evident in the naturalistic depiction of the landscape in The Lady of Shalott. Throughout the 1890s, Waterhouse mastered his portrayal of female figures from Greek mythology in Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891) and Pandora (1896), and heroines of romantic literature like Juliet (1898) and Ophelia (1894). In 1895, he received the full membership of the Royal Academy. He also taught at the St. John’s Wood Art School, was part of the St John’s Wood Arts Club, and has served on the Royal Academy Council.

In the second half of the 1900s, Waterhouse created a series of paintings of women with flowers, that were inspired by different verses of poetry, like The Soul of the Rose (1908) and Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May (1908). By 1915, he was gravely ill with cancer. He died two years later in London, on February 1o, 1917. His last painting The Enchanted Garden (1916-1917) was left unfinished. The painting illustrates one of the stories told in The Decameron, a collection of novellas by 14th century Florentine poet Giovanni Boccaccio.

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John William Waterhouse RA (6 April 1849 – 10 February 1917) was an English painter known for working first in the Academic style and for then embracing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's style and subject matter. His artworks were known for their depictions of women from both ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend.

Born in Rome to English parents who were both painters, Waterhouse later moved to London, where he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art. He soon began exhibiting at their annual summer exhibitions, focusing on the creation of large canvas works depicting scenes from the daily life and mythology of ancient Greece.

Waterhouse's work is currently displayed at several major British art galleries, and the Royal Academy of Art organised a major retrospective of his work in 2009.

In January 2018, curators at Manchester Art Gallery caused controversy by temporarily removing a Waterhouse painting, Hylas and the Nymphs, from public display in order to connect it with a current conversation on cultural attitudes about women.

Waterhouse was born in the city of Rome to the English painters William and Isabella Waterhouse in 1849, in the same year that the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, were first causing a stir in the London art scene. The exact date of his birth is unknown, though he was baptised on 6 April, and the later scholar of Waterhouse's work, Peter Trippi, believed that he was born between 1 and 23 January. His early life in Italy has been cited as one of the reasons many of his later paintings were set in ancient Rome or based upon scenes taken from Roman mythology.

In 1854, the Waterhouses returned to England and moved to a newly built house in South Kensington, London, which was near to the newly-founded Victoria and Albert Museum. Waterhouse, or 'Nino' as he was nicknamed, coming from an artistic family, was encouraged to become involved in drawing, and often sketched artworks that he found in the British Museum and the National Gallery. In 1871 he entered the Royal Academy of Art school, initially to study sculpture, before moving on to painting.

Waterhouse's early works were not Pre-Raphaelite in nature, but were of classical themes in the spirit of Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton. These early works were exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, and the Society of British Artists, and in 1874 his painting Sleep and his Half-brother Death was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition. The painting was a success and Waterhouse would exhibit at the annual exhibition every year until 1916, with the exception of 1890 and 1915. He then went from strength to strength in the London art scene, 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 1883 he married Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art schoolmaster from Ealing who had exhibited her own flower-paintings at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. 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.

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John William Waterhouse Artworks
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