Monthly Archives: January 2010

The J.W.W. Waterhouse Exhibit in Montreal, QC

This autumn, when my husband and I were traveling in Quebec, I learned that the largest Retrospective Exhibit of J.W.W. Waterhouse’s work was going to shown at the Montreal Musee des Beaux-Arts from October to February 7. I decided that I HAD TO GO! I had already purchased tickets for myself and my daughter, Iphigeneia, when we learned that my husband had lung cancer. The trip was up in the air and looked likely to be canceled, as pursuing treatment for the cancer was of paramount and immediate importance. We thought initially, that surgery would be performed, but as it has turned out, we are going through chemo instead. Matt and I discussed it, and he felt we should go to Montreal. His treatment may be more difficult as time goes on, and his brother Mike and good friend Randy were willing to come and stay,….so we went.

One of the serendipitous delights of this trip was making the acquaintance of Josee (above). We ‘met’ by accident on the phone. I was working in my Customer Service capacity at Lands’ End Inc. and she was a customer. I noticed she was from Montreal and told her about my upcoming trip. I had not yet made any of the car rental or hotel arrangements as the trip was still up in the air. Josee volunteered to send me lodging and restaurant suggestions via e-mail. She was as good as her word, and soon Geneia and I were booked to stay at the Auberge Les Passants du Sans Soucy in Montreal’s Historic District. Not only that, but on the day of our arrival, she dropped off a packet of Visitor Information at the Auberge, so we would have it as soon as we drove in. (Geneia and I flew to Burlington, VT and drove to Montreal on Thursday, January 14.)
The photograph above is one that Geneia snapped on Friday, after we had spent noon and afternoon in the Exhibit. Josee met us in the Museum and we went out for coffee at a Patisserie nearby. We very much enjoyed meeting her in person and visitng about our travels, hers and ours. Merci, Josee! J ‘espere que nous nous reunissons encore!

G and I in our room kidding around.
Below, in one Blog entry after another, I’m posting all the major paintings we saw, together with literary references and personal comments.
As a young painter, Waterhouse, like other artists of his era, notably Lawrence Alma Tadema, was inspired by the excavations at Pompei to try to recapture the scenes of daily life in that lost and foreign world. ‘In the Peristyle’ is painted over a previous work, which one can see evidence of through the paint.
(Click on any of the following paintings to enlarge them.)

In the Peristyle 1874

Miranda 1875
Preraphaelites, like William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, has already painted scenes from Shakespeare’s plays as readily as historical scenes. This is Waterhouse’s debut with a Shakespearean subject from The Tempest. He will later return to this heroine, with a less restrained painting style.
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


After the Dance 1876
Continuing to paint antiquarian scenes, with perfect draftsmanship, Waterhouse’s subject above is less innocent than it appears. The children are not spectators, but performers. The weary postures and the down-turned flower in the boy’s hand may hint at the evanescence of childhood in the face of work and survival.


A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius 1877
The child will perhaps be left in the Temple to sleep alone, breathing medicinal herbs, and hoping for a visitation from the Asclepius, once a Greek hero of the Trojan War, later turned god of healing.


Doce far Niente 1879
‘Sweet Doing Nothing’ in translation.
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal

The Household Gods 1880
Not only did art and excavation go together, so did art and literature. The Household Gods and the Temple of Aesculapius were inspired by an historical novel by Water Pater called Marius the Epicurean.

A Flower Stall 1880


Diogenes 1882
Diogenes was the leader of a philosophical school called the Cynics, which meant dog-like. Not only did Diogenes eschew the comforts and values of civil society and choose to bask in the sun and live in a tub, like any dog, he took a dim view of mankind in general. The lantern at his feet refers to his (unsuccessful) search for an honest man.
Diogenes, according to Plutarch, once asked Alexander the Great to step aside, as he was blocking Diogenes’ sunlight. Alexander was impressed by the man’s sense of his own importance, saying that “if he were not Alexander, he would choose to be Diogenes.” The women in the painting do not seem to be similarly impressed, a fact I find quite agreeable.

The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius 1883
Waterhouse was inspired by a Wilkie Collins novel, Antonina or the Fall of Rome. Instead of defending Rome from an impending invasion by barbarians, the Emperor’s trivial pursuits and the sycophantic acquiescence of his courtiers, who bring him flowers and books instead of warning, result in the starvation and sack of his people.

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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


Consulting the Oracle 1884
I’m going to quote directly from the Exhibit (book) concerning the above painting:
According the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, Teraphim were originally human heads, taken from first born male adults who had been sacrificed. Shaved, salted, spiced, and with a golden plate bearing magic words placed under the tongue, it was believed Teraphic heads could talk and give guidance. In twentieth-century excavations of Jericho, evidence of human skulls having been used as cult objects was discovered, supporting the existence of this practice. It is possible that the worship of the heads originated first as a fetish representative of ancestors, but gradually they came to be considered as oracular.
The Targum of the Pseudo-Jonathan was probably composed around the 15th Century C.E.. Human sacrifices (especially of first born children) by ancient Canaanites, as evidenced in the excavations of Jericho, Tyre, Sidon and Carthage, a colony of Tyre, were one of the practices so abhorent to the God of the Bible, and inquiring of the dead, one of the justifications given for Israel’s invasion and conquest of the land.


St. Eulalia 1885
Eulalia was martyred, gruesomely with iron hooks and torches applied to her body, in 304 C.E. at twelve years of age. At the moment of her death, white doves and snow are supposed to have fallen, extinguishing the flames. Waterhouse’s treatment is at once original in composition – the foreshortened figure of Eulalia is certainly unconventional – and beautiful. The snow has extinguished all trace of blood and flames. I must say that Eulalia’s figure, mature for a twelve year old, does not seem to bear any evidence of fire or torture, for which I’m thankful, but I don’t imagine real martyrdom is so painless to behold.

The Magic Circle 1886
This painting, in spite of its occult subject, is one of Waterhouse’s best, I think. The sorceress isn’t an ideal beauty, as in later paintings. It appears to have an Egyptian locality, but the dress looks more Druidical and medieval English. The dress and the background are rendered natural and uncontrived by means of thin, liquid paint, brushed on with confidence.
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


Mariamne 1887
Mariamne was the second wife of Herod the Great, a very paranoid man. She was evidently so beautiful that Herod gave instructions that if he himself were to die, she should be put to death also, since Herod expected another man would want her once he himself was out of the way. He became convinced that she had committed adultery. In this painting, the Judges in the background have condemned her to death, a cowardly action in the face of little evidence, in order to please Herod. They may further have disliked her pride and outspokenness. Herod is portrayed as indecisive and agonized, wildly swinging from one emotion to another, as is characteristic of paranoids. Legend has it that Herod, loth to lose her entirely, kept her body preserved in honey for seven years afterward.


Cleopatra 1888
‘Where’s my serpent of the old Nile? For so he calls me.’
Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare, Act 1


The Lady of Shalott 1888
(Click on any of these paintings for a large view.)
Simply my favorite painting in the whole world. Standing next to this painting, the Lady stands out from the background almost physically, owing to the muted background being painted thinly and the built-up, almost sculptured paint on the figure. This painting, which is large, was to some extent painted en plein air in order to render the landscape more real. It must have been very difficult to anchor so large a canvas in even a mild wind. However, it is utterly real to look upon. Definitely worth the trouble. Some of Waterhouse’s pastoral paintings of later years don’t look like real English countryside. This one does.


Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses 1891
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


Ulysses and the Sirens 1891
Apparently, in the Odyssey, there are only two Sirens. Waterhouse provides seven. Sirens are portrayed this way in Greek Vase Paintings, with women’s heads (All the better to sing, my dear) and bird’s bodies. I have always pictured them as mermaids of one sort or another, as Waterhouse does in a later painting. I love the Greek Ship and the Clashing Rocks though.


Cice Invidiosa 1892


The Hamadryad 1893
Speaking of Hamadryads (Greek tree nymphs), I came upon this poem by Edgar Allen Poe:
To Science
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


The Lady of Shalott 1894
Geneia particularly likes this painting of the Lady of Shalott. “The Lady” seems the perfect metaphor for Victorian womanhood, cloistered in a domestic world, racked with longing for freedom and the pursuit of passion. This painting illustrates the point in the story where she turns away from the mirror, in which (like Plato’s cave dwellers) she turns away from the shadowplay of the mirror and gazes full at Lancelot through the window. The mirror cracks (click on the painting to see it better) and she begins to die from that instant.


St. Cecilia 1895


Hylas and the Nymphs 1896
Keep going to Older Posts. They’re not older. You’re only half way through the Waterhouse Pictures.
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The Waterhouse Exhibit, Montreal


Mariana in the South 1897
Mariana from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a heroine a la the Lady of Shalott. She is imprisoned by her bridegroom, Angelo, because her dowry is lost at sea….for five years. Who thinks these plots up? Meanwhile she contemplates her youth and beauty going to waste unloved. Well, that’s depressing….In the end, she is wed to Angelo by means of a trick and of her own consent. She still loves him. (A woman who would consent to marry such a man is an idiot, but since Shakespeare’s play ends at that point, she is spared the discovery that the cure is worse than the disease.)

Ariadne 1898
Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, the King of Crete. She fell in love with the Athenian Theseus when he was brought, along six other youths and seven maidens, to be sacrificed to her monster brother, the Minotaur. She helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and find his way out of the Labryrinth (identifed as the palace of the Knossos in Crete) and sailed away with him. He abandoned her in Naxos in the scene above. She was, of course, stricken to find she’d chosen the wrong man, but her next lover was true to her, AND he was a god: Dionysus, the god of wine and wild things. His panthers are already surrounding her, anticipating the next chapter in her story.


A Mermaid 1900
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