In the early-19th century, English poet Alfred Tennyson wrote one of his best-known works, “The Lady of Shalott.” Inspired by the 13th-century Italian novellina “Donna di Scalotta,” the poem draws from Arthurian subject matter to tell the tragic story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman stranded in a tower up the river from the city of Camelot.
The poem was a very popular subject for Victorian Britain because of its theme of tragic love. Forbidden to leave the tower, the lady is only allowed to see the outside world through a mirror or else suffer an unnamed curse.
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
The vivid medieval romanticism and engaging symbols have been inspiring artists ever since, few painters more so than John William Waterhouse.
Waterhouse was born in 1849 in Rome, Roman Republic (now Rome, Italy) to William and Isabella Waterhouse, both painters. Nicknamed “Nino” and encouraged to draw, he moved to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art. But while he first painted in its Academic style, he soon embraced technique and subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB).
The PRB was a short-lived, secret society created 40 years earlier by three young, rogue painters. Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais were disillusioned by the conventions of the Royal Academy. To them, the soul of the artisan was being buried beneath ruthless mechanization. Common man was being severed from all meaningful work and any true relationship with his heart and with nature.
The PRB connected to the art before Raphael. The Italian Renaissance and Medieval art, they believed, had not been limited by rigid academic rules. They sought to create high-quality works expressing real ideas and sympathy for heartfelt aspects of life. A large part of their goal was to detail nature as accurately as possible.
John William Waterhouse was impressed by the PRB’s affinity for natural beauty and by the added influence of authors like Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Keats.
Between 1888 and 1915, Waterhouse painted three works based on Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Each portrays a different part of the story.
“‘I am half sick of shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott,” 1915, John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. (Public Domain)
Waterhouse captured the second part of Tennyson’s poem in his 1915 painting, “’I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott.”
When we meet the young woman cursed to view the world in mirrored reflection, she is already sick of the shadows. As the lady spends her day weaving a tapestry, or as Tennyson refers to it, as “a magic web,” we see Camelot reflected in the mirror. At the bottom of the composition, two lovers are reflected, who are enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Trapped in her tower, the lady longs for love.
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed:
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
Discreetly, a red poppy appears only in the mirror’s reflection. According to Victorian flower language, a red poppy symbolizes eternal sleep, thus Waterhouse is using common Victorian symbology to foreshadow the lady’s death.
Waterhouse painted the third part of Tennyson’s poem with his 1894 painting, “The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot.”
One day the lady sees the reflected image of the knight Lancelot as he rides towards Camelot. She instantly falls in love with his image that, as the poem says, “flash’d into the crystal mirror.” The mirror cracks as she turns away from the reflection to look directly at Lancelot, setting a curse upon herself.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Waterhouse painted the lady tangled in the threads of her tapestry, looking directly at the viewer—the outside world. With the mirror cracked in the upper right side, the lady is intent on leaving her grave tower to meet Lancelot.
In Waterhouse’s 1888 painting “The Lady of Shalott,” he depicts the final part from Tennyson’s tragic poem, which became his most memorable and famous work of art.
As she flees in a borrowed boat for Camelot, two low-flying swallows in the composition (on the left) warn us of something ominous. The crucifix and the two burned-out candles allude to her impending death.
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.
Works of art can never be fully understood without knowledge of the culture that spawned them. Waterhouse might have been suggesting a Victorian woman with agency, defying her confinement to pursue desires. Fueled by love, she forced herself to risk the unknown.
In addition, Waterhouse painted in the decades following the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840). He would have seen the steel, petroleum, power loom, and factory giving Victorians a way out of their severe poverty. Yet, he would have also witnessed its dizzying cost to traditional family life. He might have been reflecting on the Victorian’s fear of losing the beauty of the agrarian way of life.
Then again, Tennyson’s poem and Waterhouse’s painting are based on folklore. And when examined closely, it’s meaning proves rich for interpretation.
Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” was ultimately accepted by the English establishment; it was acquired by Henry Tate in 1894 for his museum of national art, where it still resides.
Tennyson’s poem continues its long echo. In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” (1908), Anne Shirley reads from the stanzas as she floats down the river, reenacting the scene. Agatha Christie used the line “The mirror crack’d from side to side” as the title of her 1962 novel. Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt adapted the poem to music for her 1991 album “The Visit.”
But John William Waterhouse ushered in a Pre-Raphaelite revival, especially the movement’s love of natural beauty and of Tennyson—arguably their favorite poet. The painting of the forlorn maiden lets each of us be witness to the vulnerable face of a woman’s love-born bravery.