And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1832, tells of a woman who suffers under an undisclosed curse. She lives isolated in a tower on an island called Shalott, on a river which flows down from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot. Not daring to look upon reality, she is allowed to see the outside world only through its reflection in a mirror. One day she glimpses the reflected image of the handsome knight Lancelot, and cannot resist looking at him directly. The mirror cracks from side to side, and she feels the curse come upon her. The punishment that follows results in her drifting in her boat downstream to Camelot ‘singing her last song’, but dying before she reaches there. Waterhouse shows her letting go the boat’s chain, while staring at a crucifix placed in front of three guttering candles. Tennyson was a popular subject for artists of this period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse’s biographer Anthony Hobson relates that the artist owned a copy of Tennyson’s collected works, and covered every blank page with pencilsketches for paintings.
The landscapesetting is highly naturalistic; the painting was made during Waterhouse’s brief period of plein-air painting. The setting is not identified, although the Waterhouses frequently visited Somerset and Devon. The model is traditionally said to be the artist’s wife. Waterhouse’s sketchbook contains numerous pencil studies for this and the painting of the same title made six years later (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery). This second work shows the Lady at the moment she looks out of the window and the curse is fulfilled. Waterhouse also made sketches of the final scenes in which the boat bearing the Lady floats into Camelot.
The work is a representation of a scene from Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s 1832 poem of the same name, in which the poet describes the plight of a young woman, loosely based on the figure of Elaine of Astolat from medieval Arthurian legend, who yearned with an unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, isolated under an undisclosed curse in a tower near King Arthur‘s Camelot. Tennyson also reworked the story in Elaine, part of his Arthurian epic Idylls of the King, published in 1859, though in this version the Lady is rowed by a retainer in her final voyage. Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894 and 1915.
According to Tennyson’s version of the legend, the Lady of Shalott was forbidden to look directly at reality or the outside world; instead she was doomed to view the world through a mirror, and weave what she saw into tapestry. Her despair was heightened when she saw loving couples entwined in the far distance, and she spent her days and nights aching for a return to normality. One day the Lady saw Sir Lancelot passing on his way in the reflection of the mirror, and dared to look out at Camelot, bringing about a curse. The lady escaped by boat during an autumn storm, inscribing ‘The Lady of Shalott’ on the prow. As she sailed towards Camelot and certain death, she sang a lament. Her frozen body was found shortly afterwards by the knights and ladies of Camelot, one of whom is Lancelot, who prayed to God to have mercy on her soul. The tapestry she wove during her imprisonment was found draped over the side of the boat.
Tennyson’s verse was popular with many of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, and was illustrated by such artists as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Maw Egley, and William Holman Hunt. Throughout his career, Waterhouse was preoccupied with the poetry of both Tennyson and John Keats. Between 1886 and 1894 Waterhouse painted three episodes from the former’s epic, and La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893) from Keats.
The Lady of Shalott (1888) is one of John William Waterhouse’s most famous works. It is the epitome of Pre-Raphaelite style. This piece includes the Pre-Raphaelite aspect of nature, a sympathetic notion toward the subject portrayed, and the vivid detail and color, which is the trademark of Pre-Raphaelite artwork. The Lady of Shalott pictures The Lady who is the main character in Tennyson’s poem, also titled The Lady of Shalott (1842), who is facing her destiny. The Lady has made her way to this small canoe with a few of her belongings. She had been confined to her quarters, not allowed to go outside or even look outdoors. “A curse is on her if she stay,” Tennyson. In the poem, a curse had been put on The Lady, but she defies the rules of the curse to see if she could live outside of her confinement. This is the moment that is pictured in John William Waterhouse’s painting, as The Lady is leaving to face her destiny. She is pictured sitting atop her woven tapestry, which showcases Waterhouse’s strong attention to detail.
From a quick look, it simply looks like an oil-on-canvas painting of a woman in a canoe. But with a closer look, the painting is filled with metaphoric references. The Lady has a lantern at the front of her boat; in the poem by Tennyson and reflected in John William Waterhouse’s image it will soon be dark. Also, with a closer look, we can see a crucifix positioned near the front of the bow, and The Lady is gazing right over it. Next to the crucifix are three candles. Candles were a representation of life – two of the candles are already blown out, signifying that her death is soon to come. Aside from the metaphoric details, what this painting is valued for is John William Waterhouse’s realistic painting abilities. The Lady and the water and landscape around her are nearly flawless, yet it is clear that The Lady is the ideal focal point by the intense colors. Her dress is stark white against the much darker hues of the background. This is a large painting, sixty by nearly eighty inches, irregular for a subject like this in 1888. This oil-on-canvas painting by John William Waterhouse remains representative of the Pre-Raphaelite and of his artistic skill because of his close attention to detail and color, accentuating the beauty of nature, realist quality, and his interpretation of a vulnerable, yearning woman.