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John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse’s iconic canvas The Lady of Shalott is one of the most ubiquitous works of British painting and a symbol of the morbid beauty and dramatic iconography of the Victorian world. Painted in 1888, Waterhouse's work is a visual translation of the epoch-making poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose early ballad ‘The Lady Of Shalott’ explored the medieval myth of Elaine of Astolat, the lady who died for her love of the Knight Lancelot. The story goes that the young woman was forbidden to view directly the reality passing by outside her window, and therefore was condemned to look at the world through a mirror, locked in her tower. The Arthurian legend goes on to explain how, following her revelatory glance at reality, she fell in love with Lancelot and died of a broken heart when she found her love was unrequited. Versions differ, in one she is said to have sailed off down the river to her doom, in another she dies and as per her instructions is floated down the river on a small raft, adorned only with a few candles, as her cold hands clutch an explanatory letter for Lancelot.
Waterhouse's stunningly poignant interpretation of the mythological tale is made all the more moving by the symbolic act of the lady hopelessly letting go of the boat's chain, her gaze fixed on the immanence of her fate. Her open mouth can almost be heard to utter a voiceless sob, as the startling colour palette reinforces the extinguished breath of the candles. In front of her the reeds are broken, and the trees in the background bare their sharp branches and leaves in this grimly gothic encounter. The tale became a popular choice for artists throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, namely the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose stylistic flourishes and formal innovations pervaded the early works of the young Waterhouse.
The Lady of Shalott can be seen as a bridging work in the history of art, between the surging passion of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the ambitious scope of British history painting, and the emotional charge of the Symbolist movement. An iconic painting of nascent Symbolism, Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott is an emotive evocation of Tennyson’s poem, rereading both the contemporary adaptation and the early legend and bringing the tale firmly into the nineteenth century as an example of the artist's sublime creative vision.
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