Whenever you go looking for artworks to illustrate articles about folklore and mythology, one name keeps popping up. That’s Victorian artist, John William Waterhouse. He used many myths and legends to inspire his work, including the literary varieties available via the Romantic poets. In this article, let’s explore the link between folklore and art within Waterhouse’s work! We’ll look at three more artists throughout July.
You may think “urgh, not the Victorians” at my choice for this month’s theme. But here’s the thing. It was a period in which mythology and folklore appeared a lot in art. True, they used these myths to explore dangerous female sexuality or to reinforce other patriarchal and colonial ideals. But these paintings also brought these legends to a wider audience.
On a practical level, many of the paintings are in the public domain, so I can share them here. So let’s explore the use of folklore in the art of John William Waterhouse!
So who was John William Waterhouse?
He was an English painter, apparently born on 6 April 1849 (that’s the day he was baptised). He died on 10 February 1917. As the son of two painters, he became a member of the Royal Academy of Art. His early style is very Academy-friendly, though he later changed his style to emulate that of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). They were a group of artists that formed to return to artistic principles that pre-dated Raphael.
The PRB formed in 1848 to reject the popular art forms of the time. They preferred intense detail and vivid colours, especially where nature was concerned. Folklore and scenes from Romantic poetry were common in their work. Both Tennyson and Keats proved important influences.
Waterhouse was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite since he borrowed from their subject matter but not their techniques. He started out with classical subjects but replaced these with Romantic poetry and Shakespeare in the late 1880s (Silver 2011: 265). This is where we see a switch from mythology to folklore, albeit folklore filtered by literature.
Indeed, Waterhouse created 118 paintings in total. Many of them depict Greek and Roman mythology. Some think the fascination comes from the fact he was born in Rome. You can find mermaids, Circe, naiads, and many other paintings among his work that will be familiar if you’ve read this blog before.
Ironically, we see classical subjects appearing as a rebuttal to the Pre-Raphaelites. Yet they’re also used to further various Victorian cultural projects around class, imperialism, gender, and religious belief (Kestner 1991: 565-6). Let’s see just how that works in the paintings of John William Waterhouse.
‘Ondine’ is an early painting that at first seems to bear little relation to folklore. A woman with long blonde hair stands on the side of a fountain in a town square. A man stands watching from a doorway behind her.
Yet the title tells us who the woman is. She’s an ondine, or undine. Paracelsus invented these beings to represent the element of water in the 16th century. Gnomes, sylphs and salamanders represented earth, air, and fire respectively.
The ondine looks like a human, but doesn’t have a soul. She can only get an immortal soul if she marries a human. He essentially gives her a soul in exchange for his fidelity. If he cheats on her, he dies. The undine later influenced ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen (1837).
Ondines would later be recast as femmes fatale in later Victorian paintings. Waterhouse himself abandoned the somewhat chaste figure of the ondine in favour of the predatory naiads, the water nymphs of Greek myth. Women tend to either play dangerous characters or tragic figures in Waterhouse’s work. This reflects the role of women as either the Angel of the Hearth or the Fallen Woman in wider Victorian art. Meanwhile, this ondine is neither, making her an otherworldly creature in an otherwise drab human space.
‘The Magic Circle’ (1886)
I’d argue we could say the same of ‘The Magic Circle’. This painting depicts a sorceress, drawing a magic circle with her wand, while she brews a concoction in her cauldron. This painting feels like it should be mythological, due to its setting. Yet Waterhouse has gone for a ‘mix and match’ approach to his set dressing, making it hard to find a place or time for the scene. Frances Fowle does note Waterhouse’s fascination with “the exotic”, which we can see here (2000). Unfortunately, this has a tendency to reduce people and places to stereotypes, rather than acknowledging them as the full people or places that they are.
The sorceress holds a golden sickle in her left hand. These tools are usually ascribed to druids, who allegedly used them to harvest mistletoe. (I say ‘allegedly’ because remember, the druids didn’t write things down). Frances Fowle links the sickle with both the moon and the goddess Hecate due to its crescent shape (2000).
Crows surround the circle, yet don’t cross its boundary. In folklore, crows often represent death through their role as carrion birds, making them a regular sight on battlefields. A toad or frog also sits outside the circle, referencing witch trial reports in which such animals were believed to be witch familiars. Notice that these animals are outside the protective circle. In some ways, it feels like a ‘witchcraft-by-numbers’ painting, with recognisable tropes added to the image.
This painting doesn’t depict a specific sorceress or myth. Instead, it captures a moment of magic. The female enchantress is common in Waterhouse’s work, yet here, she’s not exactly ‘dangerous’, nor is she a tragic figure. We don’t actually know what she’s doing. She could be casting a protective spell over the local area for all we know. She focuses on her work, without gazing out at the viewer or even inviting our gaze. I think my favourite part about the painting is that it also avoids the ‘witch = ugly woman’ trope. Nor is she portrayed in a sexualised fashion. She’s simply a woman getting on with the job at hand.
‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1888)
This is perhaps one of Waterhouse’s most famous paintings. The Lady of Shalott is a popular topic to link folklore and art, even though artists draw from Tennyson’s poem rather than the Arthurian legends. In the poem from 1832, the Lady of Shalott lives in a tower on an island in a river. She’s cursed so she can’t look outside at the real world. Instead, she can only view the world through its reflection. She sits weaving all day, recreating the scenes she sees in her mirror.
One day, she spots Sir Lancelot in the mirror and looks out of the window to see him properly. The mirror breaks and she realises what she’s done. The curse comes over her at last. She heads down to the river and sets off towards Camelot in her boat, but dies before she gets there.
The painting captures the point where she sets off in the boat. Here, the three candles represent her flickering life, with only one remaining lit. The wintry reeds in the foreground also reflect the Lady’s waning life. This version of the Lady very much symbolises the Woman as Tragic Figure. We have no idea what the Lady did to end up cursed, but she’s essentially being punished for having desires.
Note, it’s only when she sees Lancelot that she chooses reality over reflections. The act of looking here becomes a rebellion against what she’s ‘allowed’ to do. Notice the fact Waterhouse has given his Lady red hair. In art, this often represents a fallen woman or some sort of scandal (Gibson 2018). Remember too that Victorian women wore their hair up when in public. They only wore their hair loose in the bedroom (Gibson 2018). Here, the Lady of Shalott defies this convention to wear her hair loose and flowing.
It’s interesting that so many artists choose to represent the Lady of Shalott based on the poem. In Le Morte d’Arthur, she is Elaine of Astolat. She falls in love with Lancelot and asks him to wear her token in a jousting tournament. He does so, albeit attending the tournament in disguise since Guinevere is there. When Lancelot is injured, Elaine nurses him back to health. Once recovered, Lancelot insults Elaine by offering to pay her for her services. He leaves the castle and ten days later, Elaine dies of heartbreak. As in Tennyson’s poem, she’s placed in a boat and drifts down the river to Camelot. Lancelot ends up paying for her funeral.
Circe and Odysseus
Waterhouse painted Circe at least four times in successive years. She embodies the ‘dangerous woman’ that appears often in his paintings. Here, female sexuality poses a very literal threat to the men within the paintings. We can’t necessarily blame Waterhouse for this—it reflects the Victorian society in which he worked, not to mention a long tradition of ‘Circe as a villain’.
Much is made of her tendency to turn men into beasts, as if this in itself makes her monstrous. In this painting, we see one such boar at her feet. Even Wikipedia claims that she turned a king into a woodpecker for spurning her advances. These stories about Circe turn her into a voracious, sexually demanding woman. The price for not acquiescing becomes physical transformation. Yet here we see Odysseus reflected in the mirror behind her. Does her sexuality simply reflect his?
Enter the Sirens
Of course, few people discuss Circe without talking about Odysseus, so that means considering the rest of the Odyssey. That leads us to his painting of the sirens. Here, he includes “his trademark of an encircling group of dangerous women surrounding the hero’s ship” (Kestner 1991: 570).
It is indeed laudable that Waterhouse has returned to the ancient Greek depiction of sirens, rather than the mermaid confection we see elsewhere. Carole G. Silver echoes oft-asked questions about Waterhouse’s place in the artistic canon. On one hand, he could be an important artist. On the other hand, he was a talented and commercially successful painter whose greatest skill was imitating other artists (Silver 2011: 264).
Here, we see a glimmer of that originality since he chooses original source material, rather than popular imagination. This painting caused an outcry in 1891. The National Gallery of Victoria bought the painting, but critics couldn’t understand why he’d painted the sirens as winged predators and not glorious maidens basking on rocks. It just goes to show how pervasive this image of sirens as mermaid-like creatures was, even in the 19th century.
I’m not sure you can consider this painting to depict dangerous women. They don’t exactly look predatory, more curious about or baffled by this strange human who ventures so close to their island. Remember, it is Odysseus’s actions that doom the sirens to death, purely because he wanted to hear their song.
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1893)
This painting is based on the John Keats poem from 1819, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, or ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy.
The beautiful lady from the title is a fairy, often portrayed as a femme fatale. She meets a knight in the woods, who narrates the poem. The knight tells of her seductive gaze, and how she enchants him with a spell. While sleeping in her bower, he sees a vision of pale kings, princes, and warriors. They all warn him that he’s in the thrall of La Belle Dame sans Merci. He wakes up and finds himself alone, and we wonder if he too has died since the sedge has withered at the bank of the lake, and he can’t hear birds singing.
Other artists have painted their own versions, and the story has become something of a legend in its own right. In some ways, it references existing folklore. Witness the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, who kisses the Queen of Faeryland and becomes her servant. Yet she releases him when he’s served enough, and sends him away with the gift of prophecy. Our knight in the Keats poem, and thus the Waterhouse painting, enjoys no such gifts.
The faery woman also references the devastating female sexuality of Lamia, another Keats poem. Indeed, much poetry scholarship will explore these themes. It’s easy to see why when we look at the Waterhouse painting. Her behaviour is incredibly forward and would have been most scandalous for Victorian audiences. The knight doesn’t seem overly keen, yet La Belle Dame pulls him close. (Note the flowing hair again!)
Yet if we look at La Belle Dame from a folklore perspective? She represents the danger of consorting with faeries. While modern literature would have you swooning at the idea of a faery lover, earlier folklore would categorically advise against such a pursuit. The poem pre-dates the vogue for vampires, though only just, Dr Polidori’s The Vampyre was published the same year—1819. Yet there’s also something vampiric about La Belle Dame. She almost feeds on the knight’s life force, given willingly as his love, and gives nothing but an illusion in return.
Pandora is perhaps the ultimate woman to depict in art. She’s made both dangerous and tragic through her curiosity. Like the Lady of Shalott, her desire to look proves to be her undoing. Yet unlike the Lady, it proves the undoing for all humanity.
The most famous version of the Pandora myth comes from a poem by Hesiod. Zeus is furious after Prometheus gives fire to humans. He decides to give humanity a punishment in the form of a beautiful woman. At this point, the myths agree that the humans in the Golden Age were all men. The arrival of a woman becomes their punishment, so clearly, misogyny ran deep even then.
Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, creates Pandora, and the other gods give her skills and abilities. Hermes names her Pandora, which means ‘All-Gift’ to reflect the gifts she received from the gods.
Prometheus has warned his brother Epimetheus to reject any gifts from Zeus. He’s already figured that there will be reprisals. Yet Pandora is so alluring that Epimetheus accepts her, and the jar she brings with her. A mistranslation sees the jar turned into a box in the 16th century, which explains Waterhouse’s depiction of the box. Pandora unleashes the contents of the jar, except Hope, which remains inside.
Mythology or Misogyny?
There is some disagreement as to the ‘veracity’ of the myth due to the existence of a pre-Hesiodic goddess named Pandora. In this case, her name actually means ‘all-giving’. As William E. Phipps notes, “Classics scholars suggest that Hesiod reversed the meaning of the name of an earth goddess called Pandora (all-giving) or Anesidora (one-who-sends-up-gifts)” (1988: 37). Here, this earth goddess who brings life is recast as a woman who brings only death. Phipps also notes Hesiod’s general hatred of women, which clearly colours his myth of Pandora.
I think the Waterhouse version is interesting in that this Pandora doesn’t appear to know what is in the box. This version jettisons the ‘walking booby trap from the gods’ of Hesiod and favours the ‘curious woman’ interpretation. While this still places the responsibility for the world’s evils on Pandora, it also removes any malice on her part. In this painting, she seems naive and almost guileless. Still, like the Lady of Shalott, she’s punished for the desire to see.
Folklore and Art: Natural Bedfellows
We can see from these works that folklore and mythology provide plenty of inspiration for artists. The painters overlook or emphasise different elements of the stories so they can comment on the society around them. In the case of John William Waterhouse, his female characters are by turns child-like damsels and dangerous temptresses. This almost turns the men into one-dimensional figures, easily manipulated by the women around them.
It is important to remember that artists did need to make a living. Reflecting the social mores of the time was one way to gain acceptance and thus commissions. But how much have these representations of various myths and legends impacted the way we now ‘remember’ the stories? Do let me know what you think in the comments!
What do you think of the work of John William Waterhouse?
Fowle, Frances (2000), ‘The Magic Circle: Summary’, Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/waterhouse-the-magic-circle-n01572.
Gibson, Rachael (2018), ‘Why are artists infatuated with red hair?’, Art UK, https://artuk.org/discover/stories/why-are-artists-infatuated-with-red-hair.
Kestner, Joseph A. (1991), ‘Before “Ulysses”: Victorian Iconography of the Odysseus Myth’, James Joyce Quarterly, 28:3, pp. 565-594.
Phipps, William E. (1988), ‘Eve and Pandora Contrasted’, Theology Today, 45:1, pp. 34-48.
Silver, Carole G. (2011), ‘Waterhouse Revisited’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 39:1, pp. 263-269.
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