LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Victorian art is making a comeback in London this summer with a major exhibition, and the biggest retrospective to date, of works by John William Waterhouse, who died in 1917.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy, which runs from June 27 to September 13, is seen by critics as the latest step in a broader movement to re-establish the reputation of Waterhouse and the genre he is most closely associated with — the Pre-Raphaelites.
“After years in the wilderness, the Pre-Raphaelites are again in the spotlight, and quite rightly,” wrote Franny Moyle in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.
Waterhouse was born in Rome to British parents in 1849, and the same year the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti — delivered their manifesto challenging the “official” art promoted by the Royal Academy.
Waterhouse inherited their taste for Tennyson, Keats and Shakespeare, and the escapist, dreamlike quality of his works was also common to the school, perhaps most famously represented by Millais’ ghostly “Ophelia.”
But he also developed an interest in classical mythology through Homer and Ovid, whose works he interpreted in his eerie, atmospheric paintings, and his brushwork had moved away from the meticulous realism of the original Pre-Raphaelites.
From early in his career, Waterhouse was striving to be noticed in a crowded arena.
His choice of subjects from ancient history, for example, including “The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius” or “St. Eulalia” from the 1880s, was seen as a bold choice.
Although in the tradition of great painters, it was not particularly popular with the art establishment at the time.
“So Waterhouse is doing something quite daring — he’s measuring himself up against the great painters (of the Renaissance),” said co-curator Elizabeth Prettejohn.
His St. Eulalia, depicting a 12-year-old Christian girl martyred in Roman Spain in the 4th century, was a theme more closely associated with French painting than British.
“This is a very unusual thing to find at the Royal Academy,” said Prettejohn. “He gets maximum impact out of it.”
With the help of the Academy and its shows, Waterhouse’s reputation grew and by the 1880s he was at the center of the British art establishment.
His works also became increasingly preoccupied with mystical, powerful female figures ranging from nymphs to mermaids to the Lady of Shalott.
His renowned representation of the heroine from Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name was rejected by many critics who were more accustomed to his historic scenes.
But it did become a “rallying cry” for younger artists and was interpreted as representing political and social change in the role of women in Victorian society with its hint of eroticism and expression of a woman’s isolation and punishment.
Waterhouse never embraced the modernist art styles of the turn of the century, and by 1914 he had returned to historical narratives loosely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.
After his death, his art and that of the Victorians fell dramatically out of favor and was only revived toward the end of the 20th century. In 2000, Waterhouse’s “St. Cecilia” hit headlines when it sold for 6.6 million pounds at auction.
Editing by Paul Casciato