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John William Waterhouse was born in Rome, to a set of British parents. He spent the first six years of his life in Italy; these young years had great influence on his work and life. When Waterhouse needed to get refreshed, he would return to Italy to soak up the language, the sun, and their way of life.
Waterhouse took drawing lessons from his father, who was a mildly successful artist. His first attempt to enter the Royal Academy was as a painter. When it failed, he opted to enter as a sculptor and was admitted. Once a student of the academy, he shifted his focus back to painting. He had his father's love of mythology and legend, which he combined with the warmth and passion of Italy.
His early works reflect a strong attachment to Alma-Tadema. They are classical paintings due to their Greek architecture and costume. Waterhouse brings the warm Mediterranean sun into many of these paintings. The way he renders the marble is very reminiscent of Alma-Tadema.
Waterhouse's later works show his devotion to Tennyson and Keats. The same models reappear time after time in his paintings. He also paints a great deal of mythological scenes, one of his favorites being the story of Psyche and Cupid. While some artists included monsters and horrific outcomes to heighten the drama of their works, Waterhouse carefully avoided these.
Waterhouse was a favorite of the Victorian public and the Royal Academy. He was a quiet man who preferred solitary study and a few close friends. As a result he shied away from ascending to the role of President in the Academy.
His paintings often grace the pages and occasionally the covers of Pre-Raphaelite books, even though he was not involved in that group. His technique and ideals do carry the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, but he is far too classical to fit into the group. It has been said, and rightly so, that his paintings have done a great deal to bring the Pre-Raphaelite ideals into the 20th century.
A Grecian Flower Market, 1880
Laing Art Gallery
The Lady of Shalott, 1888
Tate Gallery,
London, England
Orange Gatherers, 1890
Private Collection
Circe Poisoning the
Sea, 1892
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
La Belle Dame Sans
Merci, 1893
Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany
Orange Gatherers (detail), J.W. Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse
Primary source: J.W. Waterhouse by Anthony Hobson, Phaidon, 1989