"Waterhouse was a highly eclectic artist of the generation which succeeded that dominated by Leighton, Watts, Burne-Jones and Alma-Tadema. He took his inspiration from each of the great Victorian painters and evolved a distinctive style in which classicism and romanticism, and fantasy and reality, are blended. His art training took place at the Royal Academy Schools and in Italy. He was less concerned with fine detail than any of his High Victorian forbears; his debt to Pre-Raphaelitism was one of subject matter and richness of colour rather than degree of finish. Some of the landscape passages in his paintings are akin to impressionism. He exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Grosvenor Gallery; his subjects range from the mythological, through the historical reconstructions beloved of the Victorians, to romantic subjects based in literature or legend. Almost all include beautiful young girls, painted with an adoring enthusiasm and usually introducing a mood of sexual invitation. The genres of painting with which Waterhouse was concerned were out of date by the end of his life; he died in 1917; he was one of the last great subject painters in British art." — Christopher Newall

"His pictures are a typical aesthetic mixture — biblical, historical, Keats, Tennyson, Boccaccio. Only after 1890 do his pictures become predominantly classical, many of them based on stories from Homer. In all of them the same romantic, dreamy mood prevails. Waterhouse, like Moore, was an artist who, once he had found his style, stuck to it for the rest of his career. He had one song to sing, but he sang it very beautifully. Also like Moore, Waterhouse was a quiet and retiring man who was not particularly ambitious for worldly honours. He followed the conventional path to success, becoming an ARA in 1885 and a full RA in 1895. He did not seem to care much for artistic factions, preferring to devote himself only to his work. Consequently, his art seems to reconcile many opposites — the classical and the aesthetic, the realistic and the poetic, the academic and the romantic." — Christopher Wood, p. 222.

We know a good deal about Waterhouse's art, but, as Wood points out, very little about the man, since "practically nothing is known of his private life" because almost no documentary evidence — letters or diaries — are known to exist. We know a few facts: both parents were artists, he was born in Rome, his mother and two brothers died of tuberculosis after the family returned to England. Waterhouse, who remained very fond of Italy, spent much time there between 1876 and 1883. We also know that he married Esther Kennworthy in 1883 and that they moved to Primrose Hill Studios, where he associated with members of the French-influenced Newlyn School. Our knowledge of the man does not go much farther than that. "Waterhouse," says Wood, "was a reasonably social man, but too self-effacing to talk much about himself or his art" (244) and we do not even know the identity of the model who appears repeatedly in his work.



Theme and Technique

Artistic Relations — Source, Influence, Confluence


Trippi, Peter. J. W. Waterhouse. London: Phaidon, 2002.

Hobson, Anthony. The Art and Life of J. W. Waterhouse, R.A.. London.

Newall, Christopher. A Celebration of British and European Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries. London: Peter Nahum, nd [1999?]. Pp. 46-47.

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983. 224-44.

Last modified 15 June 2009