John William Waterhouse Information, Art History, and Famous Art

John William Waterhouse: Rare Bird
By Melissa Montgomery

The Lady of Shallot

Born to English parents living in Rome in 1849, John William Waterhouse (or ‘Nino’ as was his childhood nickname) was born into an artistic household. Both his parents were painters. Growing up, John would assist his father in the studio. His parents moved the family back to England in 1858 and young John started sculpting and drawing. In 1870 after many attempts, John was granted entrance at the Royal Academy.
In 1883 William married Esther Kenworthy in London. He set up a studio in Primrose Hill – a studio that would house other great artists in the future such as and Arthur Rackham and Patrick Caulfield.

John William painted over 200 works of art and often returned to Italy for inspiration. His early works were of classical themes and John had exhibitions at The Dudley Gallery, the Society of British Artists and the Royal Academy. John was one of those rare artists who enjoyed both commercial and artistic success in his lifetime.
In the early 1880’s John’s subject matter began to shift to that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott was purchased by Sir John Tate in 1888. This period of Waterhouse’s was the most successful in his career and featured many subjects that were female, tragic and often outside. Some of the paintings from this period are La Dame Sans Merci, Cleopatra, Circe Invidiosa and Ophelia.
In the late 1880’s John moved to symbolist painting- following the trend that was sweeping England and Europe at that time. He was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1895, and had exhibitions in London Liverpool and Manchester.

In 1901 John moved to St. John’s Wood in the north west of London and became a member of the St. John’s Wood Arts Club. He had many pupils and although he was beginning to be quite old he kept teaching. His work focused on the myth of Persephone and characters from literature and mythology. Paintings from this period (1901-1917) are Miranda, Tristan and Isolde and The Enchanted Garden which is unfinished. John Waterhouse died in 1917 before it could be completed and today it can be found in The Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. It is not known who the models were for these iconic paintings – there is some evidence in surviving letters that Mary Lloyd who is the subject in Leighton’s Flaming June sat for Waterhouse as did the Italian male model, Angelo Colarossi.

John’s wife Esther lived for 27 years after her husband’s death and lived until 1944. They did not have children. Today Waterhouse’s work is scattered throughout England, Germany and Australia. The Lady of Shallot is in London, Echo and Narcissus is in Liverpool and Hylas and Nymphs is at the Manchester Art Gallery. Much of his work is lost, squirreled away in someone’s attic perhaps or sold to an eccentric collector who wants to remain anonymous. The composer Andrew Lloyd Weber has Ophelia in his collection. Although much of his 200 works are in unknown locations the work of Waterhouse can be found on posters, magnets and greeting cards everywhere. It is possible for anyone to own a beautiful copy of the most famous renditions of characters from Greek mythology and English Literature.


Relevant links:

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  Action Art
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  Albert Bierstadt
  Alberta College of Art and Design
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  Art Galleries in Vancouver
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