Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 6, 2010
Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Robert Upstone, and Patty Wageman J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009. 240 pp.; 180 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9781905711369)
Exhibition schedule: Groninger Museum, Groningen, December 14, 2008–May 3, 2009; Royal Academy of Arts, London, June 27–September 13, 2009; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal, October 1, 2009–February 7, 2010

The postcard reproduction of John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888) is a perennial bestseller at the Tate Britain gift shop. This popularity mirrors Victorian public response to the artist’s work, which was greeted with acclaim at the Royal Academy throughout the late nineteenth century. In the intervening years, however, Waterhouse’s popular appeal has become divorced from artistic and scholarly opinion, and there has been little academic attention paid to his painting or his continued popularity. It is now his turn to be rescued from this critical oblivion by the rising tide of scholarly reappraisal of Victorian and Academic art. The exhibition that this catalogue accompanies is the first major retrospective of his work, and was organized by the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, in collaboration with the Royal Academy in London and the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. The catalogue admirably accomplishes the traditional art-historical task of the retrospective exhibition: charting the development of an artist’s work stylistically and thematically, with reference to biographical events, contemporary artistic influences, and larger historical trends. The high-quality illustrations are all in full color, and many are reproduced in two-page spreads, allowing details of Waterhouse’s brushwork and lush use of color to be clearly seen. That all of this feels almost shockingly refreshing is testament to the lack of attention that has been paid to Waterhouse and many of his Victorian contemporaries.

The catalogue consists of four essays, catalogue entries for and color reproductions of the one hundred works in the show (including paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks), and a concise bibliography. Peter Trippi’s biographical essay, which is the first in the book, is a brief overview of territory covered more completely in his monograph on the artist (J. W. Waterhouse, London: Phaidon, 2002). There is comparatively little documentation of Waterhouse’s life, but Trippi’s extensive research on the artist is distilled here into a very useful biographical sketch. Elizabeth Prettejohn’s essay makes the largest claims for Waterhouse’s aesthetic success. She reads his work of the late 1870s and 1880s as ambitious history painting, as he deliberately and successfully claimed the mantle of the famously failed Benjamin Robert Haydon and succeeded as a history painter before turning to mythological scenes in his later career. Robert Upstone’s essay locates Waterhouse’s paintings within contemporary interest in French naturalism, while Patty Wageman’s contribution sets them within the larger frame of continental Symbolism.

One of the catalogue’s major contentions is that Waterhouse’s career takes a significant turn around 1890. He did not exhibit at the Academy that year, and his next major exhibited work after that date turns away from the historical subjects that had constituted the bulk of his art in the 1870s and 1880s toward mythological subjects, particularly ones including women. In the essays, the authors suggest different but basically compatible ways of understanding this shift. Providing biographical context for the change, Trippi notes that the failure to sell Ophelia (Waterhouse’s major painting of 1889), the death of his father in January 1890, and an extended tour of Italy seem to have sparked a “self-reinvention” at this stage in his life. Taking her cue from a 1909 essay on Waterhouse by Rose Sketchley, Prettejohn suggests this reinvention might be related to an interest in contemporary occult movements, and weaves a complex interpretive web of hermetic symbolism in his paintings of Circe from 1891 and 1892, as well as his other mythological subjects. In the end, though, she concedes that the lack of any biographical evidence of occult interests and the secret nature of occultist activity means that “Sketchley’s occult interpretation of Waterhouse’s work becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; once the basic occult premise is in play, virtually anything can be seen to have a secret significance” (34). Upstone turns to the paintings from just before 1890—The Lady of Shalott and Ophelia—and provides a very convincing account of them as attempts to bring together contemporary interest in French naturalism with specifically British themes. As critical opposition to new French painting hardened in Academic circles, these attempts at finding a middle path were not well received, and Upstone speculates that this negative reception lead Waterhouse to “retreat from his naturalist tendency for good” (48).

One context that is not much explored is the work of Waterhouse’s contemporaries at the Academy in the 1890s and early 1900s. In the catalogue entries, the authors are more likely to make comparisons between Waterhouse’s work and earlier Pre-Raphaelite painting or European Symbolism than to the work of his fellow Academicians. But Waterhouse’s contemporaries also exhibited images of Circe, nymphs, and scenes of magical divination in large numbers during the late 1880s and 1890s. For example, Circe was represented at the Academy by John Collier (1885), George Faulkner Wetherbee (1887), Ernest Spence (1890), Alfred Drury (1893 and 1894), Arthur Hacker (1893), and Bertram Mackennel (1894). Joseph Kestner covered some of this ground in Mythology and Misogyny (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), which linked the widespread interest in such themes to a retrogressive political reaction to the successes of the feminist movement. This is not an approach the authors of the catalogue are particularly eager to follow, though they do allude to the changing gender politics of the period, particularly in Wageman’s discussion of the painting’s Symbolist connections. But whether or not one adopts Kestner’s particular feminist reading, the context of Academic painting in the 1890s deserves deeper engagement in interpretations of Waterhouse’s shift to mythological subjects. This is not to deny the importance of either personal significance or broader international connections in reading Waterhouse’s work, but the emphasis on these factors does raise the larger question of whether or not rehabilitating Victorian artists requires separating them from their Academic context and locating them within the accepted narratives of modernist painting.

The catalogue entries are organized by the phases of Waterhouse’s career: Youthful Experiments; Building a Career; Associate of the Royal Academy; Royal Academician; and the Final Years. They are short but informative, and are particularly strong on noting the circumstances of a painting’s first public exhibition and the details (including prices) of sales to collectors and public galleries. Taken together, the entries thus tell both the story of an individual’s artistic progress and the larger institutional patterns that made such progress possible, as Waterhouse moved from early exhibition entries at less prestigious and/or non-juried venues such as the Dudley Gallery to election to the Academy. This focus also usefully illuminates the artist’s strategic exhibition choices, such as in 1891, when he exhibited one major painting at the Academy and another at the more self-consciously modern New Gallery.

As a very welcome addition to the growing literature on Victorian art, the catalogue will appeal to Waterhouse’s many admirers and to scholars of Victorian and modern art.

Pamela Fletcher
Art Department, Bowdoin College