JOHN WATERHOUSE: MYTHOLOGY, ART HISTORY AND CINEMA
Because my current research is about the visual storytelling and the representation of history in cinema and painting, I hadn’t really intended to write or even think about the paintings of John Alfred Waterhouse. Although Waterhouse’s paintings are historical in subject matter, they predominantly depict mythological or literary subjects and I hadn’t thought it was necessary to think about him. However, I was wrong. Not quite sure yet how I’ll fit the discussion of Waterhouse into my current research project, but is definitely worth a try.
I’ve been prompted to take another look at Waterhouse, an artist whose paintings I have always admired very much (I had a poster of his Echo and Narcissus for years), because of a recent controversy at Manchester Art Gallery, where his highly popular painting Hylas and the nymphs was removed from view. Not for restoration, simply removed. Actual reasons behind the removal are obscure. Some quote the museum’s curator, saying it was for political purposes, judging that Waterhouse’s work as “old-fashioned” and having toxic views about women and race.  Other sources say the removal was intended to “provoke conversation” or “provoke debate” – although who is meant to be having the conversation and what specifically is being debated is not made clear. In any case, instead of debate being provoked, a tidal wave of anger exploded over the Internet as people protested what appeared to be censorship (and that old favourite “political correctness gone mad”); others, including myself, simply protested the removal of a pretty remarkable piece of art that deserves to be seen. It’s also- and this is my area of enthusiasm – a valuable painting for those interested in film-making (cinematography, production design, character development etc) to see.
The story of Hylas and the nymphs, which is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other mythologies, is very interesting. Robert Graves describes Hylas as a “squire to Heracles (Hercules)” and recounts how stylists left the camp in order to fetch water from the nearby pool of Pegae, and didn’t return. His friends found only his water pitcher lying abandoned the side of the pool. Although they hunted for him, and he was never again found the explanation being that the nymphs Dryope and her sister nymphs of the pool of Pegae had fallen in love with Hylas, and enticed him to come and live with them in an underwater grotto.” (Graves, Greek Myths: 197) Heracles was distraught and searched for Hylas for a long time, but he was never found.
Richard Buxton, in his Complete world of Greek mythology, points out that as Greek springs were considered sacred, “springs in mythology were prime locations for encounters with the more-than-human”. The most interesting aspect of the Hylas story, more than simply nymphic abduction, is the relationship between Heracles and Hylas. Buxton: “Heracles reacted with passionate anguish (‘sweat poured down over his temples, and within his innards the dark blood boiled’ sang Apollonius) so as to leave little doubt about the homoerotic intensity of his relationship with Hylas. When the Argo sailed on, Heracles remained behind pushing his fruitless quest for the boy before the collective enterprise of the expedition.” (Buxton 110)
I cite both of these studies in Greek mythology at length, in order to point out the significance of the subject which Waterhouse painted. Greek mythology, like most mythologies, has wonderful layers of meaning so that what you read or see (if it’s in a picture) is not necessarily the whole story. To unpick the Hylas myth a little bit, on one level it is about the ending of a passionate relationship between Heracles and his lover. Hylas leaves his lover for another, the nymph Dryope. On another level, it is about Hylas leaving his same-sex lover Heracles for the opposite sex lover, Dryope. (Now we have to be careful not to anachronistically read Greek mythology through the lens of contemporary attitudes and ideas about gender and sexuality, but it is certainly possible to note the gender and sexuality motifs operating within the myth.) Some have interpreted it as a story about the femme fatale – women luring the susceptible youth to a watery grave; but to be fair this interpretation doesn’t seem to reside within the Greeks’ own retellings of the story. On the other hand, one wonders precisely how the mortal Hylas was supposed to go and live underwater with the nymphs – surely they really were just luring him to his death, even if they didn’t mean to?
More interesting readings are hinted at by Buxton, who actually explains a bit more what nymphs are. They’re not “women” in the normal sense of the word any more than satyrs are “men”; they’re not human at all. They are “a class of female divinities” who usually have a strong connection with the landscape, for example with mountains, trees, springs, rivers or the sea. They are often identified with a particular locality, such as a spring, or a pond or a forest. This association with Nature is important because “Nymph” is also used sometimes to mean a girl, particularly a bride, a meaning which points to a connection with sexuality. I suppose we can read the “nymph” as a kind of symbol of primordial sexuality, an atavistic sexuality that has a dangerous power to overcome the more considered relationships based on love and trust (e.g. Hylas’s relationship with Heracles). In mythology, nymphs are often pursued by gods and satyrs, or themselves are in pursuit of mortals – but these sexual escapades often end badly, either to the nymph or to the mortal.
Paintings of mythological subjects are pretty rare these days, but for most of art history they were considered the highest level of painting within the Canon of art. However just because painters today rarely paint mythological subjects, doesn’t mean that audiences aren’t interested in them. The attraction to mythological and historical subjects in art, literature and cinema is as strong as ever. Literary adaptation in painting is not that different to literary adaptation in film. Waterhouse was primarily (and expertly) an adapter of literary ideas into the visual. It’s not exactly illustration – the painting has to tell the whole story visually. From the late 18th century onward, one of the principal subjects for painters was scenes from all kinds of literature, from classical mythology to Shakespeare and the poetry of Byron, for example. I believe that the achievements of these paintings is an important step in the development of visual storytelling which feeds directly into cinema’s own visual storytelling. It was not possible for the camera to recreate Waterhouse’s colors, until the advent of Technicolor, but his tightly-focused, intense characterful compositions must have instrutced many a would-be cinematographer or designer, and are still well worth studying.
Don’t forget, cinema comes about in 1895 – and the 1st film screening was in London in 1896, the same year that Hylas was completed. It’s tempting to imagine Waterhouse, who would be almost 50 by then, attending the Lumieres’ first screenings in Regent St, but sadly there’s no evidence for it. But who knows, maybe he did see a few movies before passing away in 1917.
The audience for Waterhouse’s paintings is pretty much the same audience that likes cinema. Waterhouse’s paintings are extremely cinematic, if by “cinematic” we mean having the characteristics that we recognize from cinema: dynamic composition that gives the illusion of life or movement, striking colour and/or tonality, active characters with personality, realism expressed as material detail, the “dramatic moment”, all adding up to a sense of story. You can see these characteristics in all of Waterhouse’s paintings.
Looking at the painting Hylas and the nymphs from the point of view of the filmmaker, we notice that the nymphs in the pond are not identikit figures of female pulchritude (it should be noted that this is one of the very few Waterhouse paintings that shows any nudity at all*). Even if he used just one model for the nymphs, they are not identical: each has her own expression and point of view. The nymph on the far left is looking on from afar, curious but detached. The ones on the far right don’t seem to be particularly pleased with the situation, perhaps worried that it’s not a good idea to consort with the mysterious human. The trio in the middle, approaching Hylas (which includes the one in the foreground whose face we don’t see) seem less about “brazen hussy” sexuality than expressing interest and fascination, but the female figures are not at all passive. The “camera” is closed right in to a midshot, so we see only the world of the pond within the frame. Without realising it, Hylas has already succumbed to this world.
The nymphs’ connection with nature is very profound in the painting since the whole frame is filled with verdant growth, the lilies in the pond and the luxuriant foliage surrounding it. We can imagine the conversation Hylas is having with Dryope: what is he saying to her? How is she imploring or convicing him to come and join the nymphs? Is he persuaded, or do they simply pull him into their pond? It’s a moment of tension: their eyes meet, while the other nymphs’ eyes are burning into the situation. We can almost smell the heady aroma of the water flowers and the herbs that are growing at the side of the pond. The deeply sensual picture creates a reverie of the imagination. The colours are earthy tones: blues and greens, the rich red browns of the nymphs’ hair – all except for the scarlet sash around Hylas’s waist, his link to the human, martial world of Heracles.
We know what happens next, but there are still questions. Are the nymphs innocent or not? Do they mean to drag him to drown, or will they magically transform him into a water-spirit so that he can survive in the pond with them? The mythology does not tell us – the implication being I suppose that Hylas is drowned. Interestingly, although the Greeks don’t seem to have had any male version of the water nymph, the Scandinavians did: known as näcken (also näkki, nøkk). I’ve always liked the idea of cross-mythologising though, so maybe there is hope for Hylas in my film script!
John Waterhouse is often considered a member of the current Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, but I’m not really sure why, since he was actually born in the same year that the brotherhood was formed, making him significantly younger. He shares with them an interest in literary adaptation, combining naturalistic denial and attention to material realism with high color and a strong sense of beauty. I don’t know that much about him personally, but if I was to compare him to another artist, I’d probably go with Gustav Klimt more than any of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, for the richness of his interpretation and the deep sensuality of his figures, though the style is completely different. But his work is much more cinematic and less bling.
Waterhouse was a painter of scenes that are rich, filmic and dynamic. No wonder they have fascinated audiences for over 100 years. Is Waterhouse “sexist”? Normally I would not bother to have this conversation because anachronistic analysis never leads to anything. But OK, let’s engage, forgetting about today’s impossible standards, which neither business, politics or the media ever meet. Look at Waterhouse’s body of work. He paints a lot of women, true. But Waterhouse’s women are always individuals. They are not passive nor even gratuitously sexualised. In some of the pictures where sex is the myth’s theme, there is nudity but it is never graphic or gratuitous; nor is it prudish. Instead, Waterhouse seems to be concerned with really interpreting the story or myth, giving visuality to the text. His “Cleopatra” – my favourite of his paintings – is a deeply complex character; she is a politician and a thinker, no femme fatale!
I am not arguing for Waterhouse to be seen as a “great painter.” He is not Delacroix. His work breaks no new ground, though he refines the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites, and his work is to my mind more visually and intellectually satisfying, through his better understanding of the myths, and of French and Italian painting. As a film-maker though I think he’s definitely worth studying. His female characters are fascinating. his sense of color, costume and overall design is compelling. His way of making visual the literary text is highly developed. Like Gérôme, he brings a myth to life. Both are underrated artists whose work feeds as directly as an IV drip into the history of cinema.
I don’t know what is the truth is behind the MAG’s removal of the painting, but I am really glad it served to demonstrate the love for Waterhouse that exists throughout the land! And that people care about art! Most of Waterhouse’s pictures are in private collections which is a pity if you want to see them. But there are a couple of dozen of them around the UK in different museums, though they’re not all on display. Tate Britain has Waterhouse’s particularly good Saint Eulalia
There is one at the excellent AGO in Toronto, one of Waterhouse’s paintings of the Lady of Shalott, the glorious “‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott” painted in 1915
*Let me just say here and now I am not opposed to nudity in art and I believe that the representation of sexuality and gender in art is nuanced and can be discussed without resort to puritanism or anachronistic value judgments. People who wish to resort to such nonsense should stay out of galleries. I am NOT in favour of censorship of art, even art I dislike (this means you, Jeff Koons, long may you slither).
 Of course it’s possible to view Waterhouse’s work – and every other cultural text in existence – as having something in it indicative of attitudes to gender but it’s a lot harder to be clear about what those attitudes were. The whole POINT of art is that you can read it on many levels. Of race, well I just cannot see anything that this painting in particular is saying about race – feel free to enlighten me.
(Whatever happened to the “death of the author” anyway?)