Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 84 x 130 cm
The women in Dana 1892 by John William Waterhouse are a mixed bag. Waterhouse paints many women, perhaps he was a secret lover? Or, perhaps he simply chose models as the subjects of his romantic vision. Whatever the case, the paintings are filled with wistful and romantic sentiment. Waterhouse's work reflects an enduring fascination with women and romantic wistfulness.
Women in Waterhouse's paintings
The chaste ondine has been abandoned in Waterhouse's paintings in favor of predatory naiads. Historically, women have figured as sacrificial and tragic creatures in the works of Victorian artists, but Waterhouse's female characters have a different, more sinister quality. Waterhouse depicts his women as enchantresses, bringing them into a more tragic and dangerous world.
Hylas and the Nymphs is a painting that depicts the interaction between women and men in a mythical setting. The nymphs' gaze is directed toward the male figure, which ultimately leads to the latter's downfall. The work also features a female sex that hints at a broader social commentary. This female gaze is also a source of unease.
It is not entirely clear if Waterhouse had a secret love life with his models. But judging from his paintings, it's unlikely. Though he had many lovers, it is unlikely that he had an illicit relationship with a woman. It is more likely that he chose women who fit his romantic vision. In a sense, his models were his muse. And it's possible that he painted many more women than he actually knew.
The Classical movement was a major influence on Waterhouse's work. Unlike most artists at the time, Waterhouse transcended the specificity of individual models to create an idealized type. Waterhouse was not the first artist to present an idealized type – older artists had done so long before – but he followed this tradition by relying on two or three principal models throughout his career.
The Classical approach to Dana 1892 by the artist was more palatable to critics in Melbourne than in London. The local supporters of the Gallery Trustees cited the work's position as the finest mythological picture of the year. However, these critics were unimpressed by the liberal adaptation of the Homeric legend by Waterhouse. However, Herkomer's characterization of the sirens in Ulysses provided further evidence of Waterhouse's interest in the Homeric legend.
The enchanting beauty and enticing sadness of Waterhouse's femme fatales entice the victims of her paintings. Waterhouse's painting style evolved from Romanticism into Symbolism and the theme of the femme fatale found its place within this genre. The women in this painting were all human, but their beauty and seductive wiles were enough to tempt the male predators.
The concept of the femme fatale is ancient, and has existed throughout history. The ancient Chinese personified the femme fatale with their infamous consort, Daji. Daji hypnotized the last king of the Shang dynasty into committing atrocities that nearly brought the kingdom to ruin. Her daughter, Visha Kanya, poisoned the victims of war with their own blood. In the Odyssey, the Greek poet retold the myth of Circe, who lured men to her island palace and turned them into animals.
In the same manner, the women in Waterhouse's Penelope and the Suitors (1892) and the Countess of Cyrene's Hylas and the Nymphs (1892) show no sign of being sexually ambiguous. While the latter is the more likely scenario, Waterhouse was a romantic at heart and often painted women based on his whims.
Paintings by John William Waterhouse were inspired by his obsession with the beauty of women. While his early paintings of beautiful women were like delicate keepsakes, his later paintings reflected a more dramatic style, with women in elaborate settings, often immersed in mythology or Romantic literature. The paintings are particularly striking because they capture the delicate beauty of the human form as an object of desire. There is something hypnotic and sexy about Waterhouse's work.
The themes in his work changed from Roman mythology to British poetry and British nature. He frequently featured the poet Tennyson, a great British poet who had died about seventy years earlier. Waterhouse also managed to establish a small following in Birmingham, where he exhibited at the Dudley Art Gallery and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This popularity of his works helped him establish a reputation in his home city.