‘The Lady of Shalott”
John William Waterhouse, 1888 Tate Britain, London
Alfred Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is one of the great achievements of Victorian poetry: loosely inspired by Arthurian legend, it tells of a ‘fairy lady’ imprisoned in a tower, unknowingly cursed to die if she ever looks directly upon the outside world. Catching sight of Sir Lancelot in a mirror, she turns to see the approaching knight through the window, bringing the curse upon herself. Waterhouse’s painting captures the moment when the doomed lady finds a boat and casts off for 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.’
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.
“And down the river’s dim expanseLike 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”
WHY CHOOSE HER? THE POSE, THE POWER IT SHOWS. THE COLOURS.