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The Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse
  • Date: 1888
  • Style: Romanticism
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Tag: rivers-and-waterfalls, boats-and-ships, fictional-characters, Alfred-Tennysson-"The-Lady-of-Shalott", The-Lady-of-Shalott
  • Dimensions: 153 x 15.24 cm
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The picture illustrates the following lines from part IV of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1832, tells of a woman who suffers under an undisclosed curse. She lives isolated in a tower on an island called Shalott, on a river which flows down from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot. Not daring to look upon reality, she is allowed to see the outside world only through its reflection in a mirror. One day she glimpses the reflected image of the handsome knight Lancelot, and cannot resist looking at him directly. The mirror cracks from side to side, and she feels the curse come upon her. The punishment that follows results in her drifting in her boat downstream to Camelot ‘singing her last song’, but dying before she reaches there. Waterhouse shows her letting go the boat’s chain, while staring at a crucifix placed in front of three guttering candles. Tennyson was a popular subject for artists of this period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse’s biographer Anthony Hobson relates that the artist owned a copy of Tennyson’s collected works, and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings.

The landscape setting is highly naturalistic; the painting was made during Waterhouse’s brief period of plein-air painting. The setting is not identified, although the Waterhouses frequently visited Somerset and Devon. The model is traditionally said to be the artist’s wife. Waterhouse’s sketchbook contains numerous pencil studies for this and the painting of the same title made six years later (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery). This second work shows the Lady at the moment she looks out of the window and the curse is fulfilled. Waterhouse also made sketches of the final scenes in which the boat bearing the Lady floats into Camelot.

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The Lady of Shalott is a painting of 1888 by the English painter John William Waterhouse. It is a representation of the ending of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 1832 poem of the same name. Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894 and 1915. It is one of his most famous works, which adopted much of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, though Waterhouse was painting several decades after the Brotherhood split up during his early childhood.

The Lady of Shalott was donated to the public by Sir Henry Tate in 1894, and is usually on display in Tate Britain, London, in room 1840.

The Lady of Shalott is one of John William Waterhouse's most famous works, an 1888 oil-on-canvas painting of a scene from Tennyson's poem in which the poet describes the plight of a young woman, loosely based on the figure of Elaine of Astolat from medieval Arthurian legend, who yearned with an unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, isolated under an undisclosed curse in a tower near King Arthur's Camelot. Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894 and 1915.

The painting has the precisely painted detail and bright colours associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. The Lady of Shalott pictures the Lady, who is the main character in Tennyson's poem, also titled The Lady of Shalott (1842), who is facing her destiny. The Lady has made her way to this small canoe with a few of her belongings. She had been confined to her quarters, not allowed to go outside or even look outdoors. "A curse is on her if she stay", wrote Tennyson. In the poem, a curse had been put on the Lady, but she defies the rules of the curse to see if she could live outside of her confinement. This is the moment that is pictured in Waterhouse's painting, as the Lady is leaving to face her destiny. She is pictured sitting on a tapestry, which showcases Waterhouse’s strong attention to detail.

Initially it simply appears to be a painting of a woman in a canoe-like boat, but the painting is filled with significant detail that amplifies the meaning. The Lady has a lantern at the front of her boat; in the poem by Tennyson and reflected in Waterhouse's image it will soon be dark. Also, with a closer look, we can see a crucifix positioned near the front of the bow, and the Lady is gazing right over it. Next to the crucifix are three candles. Candles were a representation of life – two of the candles are already blown out, signifying that her death is soon to come. Aside from the metaphoric details, this painting is valued for Waterhouse's realistic painting abilities. Her dress is stark white against the much darker hues of the background. Waterhouse's close attention to detail and colour, accentuation of the beauty of nature, realist quality, and his interpretation of a vulnerable, yearning woman are further representative of his artistic skill.

The Lady of Shalott was donated to the public by Sir Henry Tate in 1894.

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