Friday, April 25, 2014

MWA XXIII: Waterhouse's Nymphs

Even though the work I've selected for April's Monthly Work of Art is properly titled Hylas and the Nymphs, the focus of the painting clearly are is the group of sensual nymphs who are seducing the young Hylas. This painting dates from 1896 and is by the British painter John William Waterhouse (image: Manchester Art Gallery). Waterhouse is often classified as a late Pre-Raphaelite painter, but, as a 2009 exhibition and its catalogue authors argued, his paintings often reveal an awareness of French plein-aire painting and possibly even Impressionism. Hence he based his subjects on historical figures and mythological stories, but he painted them with a combination of brush stroke styles and with new optic visions as to what he is representing. (I've written about Waterhouse before on this blog, when Elizabeth Prettejohn gave a talk about this exhibition at the NAVSA conference at Yale, which you can read here.) In the painting the repetitive image of the nymphs, who all resemble one another, is startling to behold and works to emphasize their beauty as they entrance young Hylas. There is a beautiful sense of naturalism in the painting as well, in the way Waterhouse paints the lily pads, water, and the nymphs, as if to convince the viewer that these imaginative women are truly part of our world. Their seduction and ultimate killing of Hylas follows numerous other representations of the femme fatale in art throughout Europe at this time, including Salome (Gustave Moreau), Eve (Franz von Stuck), mermaids (Edward Burne-Jones), and female vampires (Edvard Munch).

According to the ancient Greek myth, the youth Hylas and his companion the heroic Hercules (they were perceived to be lovers) were part of the Argonauts, the crew of sailors who joined Jason on his quest for the golden fleece. They stopped on an island to rest, and Hylas went off to find fresh water to refill their supply of water jugs. His beauty attracted the attentions of the water nymphs, who dragged him underwater to be with them, and ultimately to his death. Hercules grieved over the loss of his companion and when to find Hylas. They were both gone so long, the Argonauts set sail leaving them behind, and Hercules went on to have other adventures. Although variations of this myth frequently appear in ancient texts, in 1867 the Arts and Crafts founder William Morris published his epic The Life and Death of Jason, in which the story of Hylas appears in Book IV. Morris died in 1896, the same year Waterhouse painted this work, although this association could just be a coincidence.

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