Enchanted by Women: John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Author:Peeters, Nic

'Enchanted by Women: John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)'

Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands, 14 Dec 2008-3 May 2009

The campaign to rehabilitate Victorian artists continues. After Dante Gabriel Rossetti (2003-4), George Frederic Watts (2004), Simeon Solomon (2005-6), John Millais (20078) and William Holman Hunt (2008-9) it is now the turn of John William Waterhouse to receive a major retrospective exhibition. Unlike these other shows, the Waterhouse exhibition did not open in Britain, but in the charming Dutch town of Groningen where the British artist has been very popular since a number of his works featured in Femmes Fatales, an exhibition of Victorian art at the Groninger Museum in 2003. The Waterhouse retrospective will travel to London (Royal Academy of Arts 27 June-13 Sept 2009) and Montreal (Museum of Fine Arts, 1 Oct 2009-7 Feb 2010) in 2009 under the title 'The Modern Pre-Raphaelite'.

During a press conference prior to the show's opening, the four curators, Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Robert Upstone and Patty Wageman, stressed that there was yet another major difference between this show and the aforementioned ones. A lot more is known about the private lives of Rossetti et al than about that of Waterhouse. In fact, the art of these other painters has often been explained through their colourful personal exploits. However, because Waterhouse's correspondence has never been found and because he died childless, the curators were forced to explain the artist for a considerable part through his works.

This is also one of the reasons why Peter Trippi advised us to let the paintings speak for themselves and to pay particular attention to the numerous exciting details included in them. Acting on Trippi's advice during my visit to this largest ever retrospective of Waterhouse's work (98 paintings, drawings and sketchbooks!), I discovered a number of traits that run through the artist's entire oeuvre.

To begin, Waterhouse was a spectacular draughtsman. He drew all the time and his sketchbooks--of which a number are exhibited in Groningen--prove that he made countless pencil studies for every painting. They betray that he was a perfectionist who corrected himself relentlessly and crossed out many of his initial designs. Waterhouse also kept track of new developments in technique. The influence of French Impressionism is apparent in the loose brushwork of paintings such as his famous The Lady of Shalott (1888) and the...

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