Born in 1849 to British painters working in Rome, John William Waterhouse is often considered the culminating artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and certainly revered as the most modern of the group. As a Pre-Raphaelite painter, Waterhouse espoused the movement’s love of classical scenes and elegant imagery. His compositions frequently reflect history, mythology, and classic literature. The movement had been made popular by artists like William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Waterhouse was one of the last Pre-Raphaelite artists and called the “modern Pre-Raphaelite” for his subtle incorporation of French techniques influenced by Impressionism.
Although the Waterhouse family returned to London in 1854 when the artist was still young, Waterhouse would often incorporate Roman mythology or his Roman influence into his paintings. Waterhouse was enrolled in the Royal Academy in 1871 where an initial bout with sculpture led to his career in painting. 1874 would witness his first successful exhibit launching a career that would continue to garner acclaim. In fact, between 1874 and 1816, there would be only two years where Waterhouse would not exhibit at the renowned Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Waterhouse’s signature style blends classicism and fantasy with largely romantic overtones. Most of the artist’s compositions include lovely women or girls in ancient, mythological, or literary scenes. One of his most famous paintings, The Lady of Shalott (1888), reflects the King Arthur legend. Other renowned Waterhouse paintings include A Naiad or Hylas with a Nymph (1893), La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), Ophelia (1894), Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), Destiny (1900), The Mermaid (1901), The Crystal Ball (1902), and Miranda (1916). Nevertheless, his extensive body of work includes many more famous paintings known throughout the world.
While many Victorian painters were concerned with attention to detail, Waterhouse relied heavily on rich coloration. Yet, some of his best-known paintings like The Lady of Shalott reflect a high degree of detail as evinced by the extraordinary story-telling tapestry that lines the scene’s boat. Waterhouse’s paintings also exude sensuality and are infused with a romantic air. Toward the end of his life he was primarily taken up with essentially classic scenes and imagery.
Little is known about Waterhouse’s private life. Even the model that he used for repeated paintings is unknown. In 1883, Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy, but the couple did not have children. Waterhouse also taught at St. John’s Wood Art School and served on the Royal Academy Council. He led a quiet life largely devoted to his art. Waterhouse died in 1917.