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The Last Pre-Raphaelite: John William Waterhouse – an artist who wrote strong women with a difficult fate

John William Waterhouse is often called the last Pre-Raphaelite. Beautiful long-haired virgins, mythological and medieval plots, wild herbs and overgrown ponds are related to his work with paintings by Millet and Rossetti. However, the biography of Waterhouse is very different from the biographies of romantics and brawlers of the XIX century.

He was born in the north of Italy into a family of famous artists and lived in this beautiful sunny country for the first years of his life. Waterhouse’s early work is filled with nostalgia for Italy – markets, ruins, Italian courtyards …

Subsequently, he often painted his heroines against the backdrop of Italian landscapes, dressed them in delicate antique dresses, embodied in his paintings the images of the tender Psyche and the insidious Circe – the heroines of ancient mythology. Later, Waterhouse often returned to these places in order to be saturated with their life-giving air.

From childhood, John was a witness to the creative life of Roman artists and poets, visiting his parents, spent many hours in his father’s workshop, where he received his first painting lessons. The atmosphere of Rome was conducive to art. Young John grew up among the majestic sculptures and paintings of great artists. We can say that he had no choice but to follow in the footsteps of his parents and devote his whole life to art.

Despite the charm of Rome, the family decided to return to England. At twenty-one, John entered the Royal Academy of Arts, where he was not seen in riots or in a special thirst for experimentation. His training was smooth, but quite successful, and years later the Academy more than once provided him with the opportunity to exhibit work within its walls.

In those years, the UK’s highest paid artist was Laurence Alma-Tadema, depicting the daily life of Ancient Rome – mostly beautiful young women in light clothes, indulging in bliss in the skins and among the scattered pink petals. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works are dedicated to the ancient poetess Sappho and are filled with hidden eroticism, however, the stiff Victorian audience received each of his paintings with unchanging enthusiasm. The first works of Waterhouse – a clear imitation of Alma-Tademe. His other “teacher” is the Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Leighton, whose work is connected with chivalry, the cult of the Beautiful Lady and British history.

However, Waterhouse quickly developed his own style, relying not only on academism, but also on the creative manner of the impressionists – he did not strive for perfect smoothness of the image, often using wide, coarse strokes to convey movement.

One of his most famous paintings was The Lady of the Shallot, based on the legend of the Arthurian cycle. A pale red-haired girl floats on the overgrown river in an old boat, her face is full of suffering, and the landscape is filled with alarm.

Biographers are not aware of any piquant story from the life of Waterhouse, he was not involved in scandals or intrigues.

Unlike most Pre-Raphaelites, he did not get involved in dubious stories with sitters – he invited several women to pose, and all of them noted his politeness and correctness. He never flirted with the women he wrote, and treated them with deep respect.

Anyone who even at least briefly got acquainted with the work of Waterhouse can notice that he often wrote a slender red-haired girl with a thin profile, reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal. Her name is known – Muriel Foster, but the biography remains a mystery.

Despite the many works and sketches that give Waterhouse a clear admiration for the beauty of Miss Foster, this hobby was purely artistic, aesthetic. Another woman owned the heart of John Waterhouse.

In 1883, he married the successful artist Esther Kenworthy. Their marriage was strong and happy, but was saddened by the loss of two children at an early age.
Many researchers look for Esther’s appearance in the works of Waterhouse, but opinions differ – someone believes that she is depicted in the image of Lady Shallot, someone claims that Waterhouse never painted his wife in romantic images.

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