Social harmony, sexual discord

J. W. Waterhouse
July 11, 2003

Despite his enormous popularity, we know remarkably little about the life and work of John William Waterhouse, and it has been more than 20 years since the last monograph on the artist, published by Anthony Hobson. Peter Trippi's superlative new volume is, therefore, certain to be a success. In addition to including hundreds of illustrations, many of them full page and in colour, his research is both fascinating and wide-ranging. The volume considers Waterhouse at every level, from a microscopic analysis of his paint surfaces through to the impact of global events, such as the Boer War and the opening of the Suez Canal, on the painter's career.

Indeed, although Trippi acknowledges gaps in his research - for example, regarding the identity of the young woman Waterhouse employed as a model and muse in more than 60 paintings - it is hard to imagine that, were the information available, the author wouldn't have tracked it down.

Particularly admirable are Trippi's analyses of the details and changing styles of Waterhouse's work, and his evaluation of the artist's achievement and the conflicting, if limited, sources of information we have about the painter.

Trippi's theoretical sophistication never overburdens the text, and he deserves much praise for his detailed accounts of Waterhouse's relationships with his contemporaries, radical and academic, on both sides of the channel. One finds stimulating comparisons with mainstream figures such as Rossetti, Monet and Alma-Tadema and with previously marginalised artists such as Harry Bates and Evelyn de Morgan.

The volume is perhaps most significant for its detailed consideration of Waterhouse's Impressionism, its suggestion that the painter might have been a practising occultist, its revelation of the international importance of the painter's supposedly parochial oeuvre, and for its subtle analyses of his affiliations with the aestheticism of Walter Pater, J. A. Symonds and Albert Moore. The quality of the text makes Trippi's exceptional lapses in detail or quality of argument all the more noticeable.

For example, Bram Stoker's Dracula was not first published in 1892, but in 1895. Trippi's occasionally crude Freudian readings also do little to enlighten viewers on the precise qualities of Waterhouse's canvasses, and the reader will gain little insight from the observation that snow is a "form of water". Perhaps more troubling, for an author who points persuasively to Waterhouse's pictorial flirtation with the effeminate male figure types employed by the homosexual Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, is Trippi's assumption that Waterhouse's supine female figures encourage "male fantasy" per se, rather than late-Victorian or contemporary heterosexual fantasy. The evidence of Waterhouse's pictorial interest in homoeroticism also does little to support the assumption, with "no documentary evidence", that he "probably endorsed the traditional differentiation between the sexes as a way to guarantee social harmony" or that "it is logical" that women, on the whole, "would appreciate" the painter's "deft balance of sensuality and decorum".

In regard to Waterhouse's aestheticism, questions of race might also have been brought further forward. For example, the classically themed 1882 canvas, Diogenes, features a black slave holding his mistress/owner's contemporary Japanese parasol, raising the question of a sexually radical aestheticism's complicity with existing racial hierarchies. Despite these reservations, the book is a work of rare merit - as suggestive and scrupulously researched as it is beautifully illustrated - and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Jason Edwards is lecturer in the department of art history, York University.

J. W. Waterhouse

Author - Peter Trippi
ISBN - 0 7148 4232 X
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - £29.95
Pages - 251

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