John William Waterhouse
components of beautiful maiden contemplating life amidst a forest scene.InspirationThe inspiration was classical literature as seen throughout this painter's career. The artist would take ancient texts, as well as more recent Victorian poetry, and take out elements as inspiration for individual paintings. Over time he developed strong technical skills in displaying architecture, clothing and scenes from nature that matched those same themes.
DescriptionOne immediately recognises this painting as capturing the famous tale of Pandora opening her box. Artist Waterhouse adds little else to this scene other than some trees in the background which help to create the particular atmosphere in which this young lady carefully opens this beautifully crafted box.
Behind her is a small pond which trickles down to her level, suggesting a tranquil setting without any other distractions. The artist wanted to ensure that the viewer's eye was also not distracted from the main subject of the painting. The model is particularly pale-skinned, as with most Waterhouse muses, and this gives an impression of purity and vulnerability.
Pandora is dressed in a translucent blue dress which features patterned detail around the sagging neckline as well as around her feet. Waterhouse would often hang the robes down on his women, revealing extra flesh in a seductive manner which may have proved controversial with some during the Victorian era.
The scene captures just the moment at which she opens the box, and Waterhouse liked to create suspense within his paintings, as most viewers would have already been well aware of the story of Pandora, and what was about to occur.
Related Artists who also used Pandora for InspirationJohn William Waterhouse was certainly not the only artist to make use of Pandora's Box as inspiration for their work. Even just looking at artists closely related to Waterhouse, we can immediately find several artworks from the likes of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with a beautiful watercolour of Pandora from 1881 and also a more famous oil painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1871.
The story itself comes from Greek mythology, dating it many thousands of years ago. It spoke, actually, of a large jar used for storage, and it was only mis-translations that created this idea of Pandora's box, that originally came directly from Pandora in Hesiod's Works and Days.
The tale has now become a common turn of phrase, meaning the opening and release of potential troubles, which are perhaps hard to judge of their danger before they have been set free. There is also a feeling that returning them to whence they came would also be a particularly arduous task.
"Don't open Pandora's box," some would say in order to warn against such an action. In this example the artist gives the biggest focus to Pandora herself, whilst other interpretations have placed more of a focus on the box itself, perhaps even going into detail on what could be found inside.
Large Image of PandoraThis stunning artwork is included in larger format below. Notice the detail on the box itself, as well as the details of stone and shrubbery which cover the background. Pandora's dress also carries a pretty, patterned design. Most impressive is the handling of the female form, which was something that Waterhouse mastered to a high level, after years of practice. This would dominate his work, both his drawings and his paintings too.
John William Waterhouse
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1530 × 2000 mm
frame: 2000 × 2460 × 230 mm
Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894
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
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.
The Lady of Shalott
is one of the original paintings from the gift of Sir Henry Tate.
Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA 1849–1917, London 1980, pp.51–6, 183, reproduced pp.54–5 in colour.
Anthony Hobson, J W Waterhouse, Oxford 1989, pp.40–1, 53, 77, 109, reproduced p.42 in colour.