Anemones. John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas, 16 ½ x 10 inches.

Our Anemones, of about 1895, the year Waterhouse exhibited Saint Cecilia at the Royal Academy, is one of the artist’s finest oil sketches of what Hobson termed une jeune fille fatale. It dates from the time of his greatest success, and shows the artist at his most assured and most romantic. Waterhouse did not sign it, and it does not directly relate to any finished painting, suggesting that it was not intended for exhibition. The girl looks a little like the rightmost figure in Hylas and the Nymphs of 1896, but Waterhouse appears to have chosen his beautiful, yearning models for their conformity to his singular romantic vision, rather than for their individual qualities.

None of Waterhouse's modern biographers has been able to tell us much about the artist’s character, what the man who painted the most popular Victorian pictures today was actually like. He appears either to have been a very private man or quite bland, which seems unlikely, considering his imaginative and romantic qualities. Waterhouse did not discuss ‘High Art’ in letters or diaries, but seems to have been open to cultural influences. Called ‘Nino’ by his friends, he was proud to have been born in Rome of British parents, both painters. Having mastered subjects from the ancient world and history (with laborious precision) earlier in his career, he began to abandon them, and painted increasingly poetic and romantic subjects towards the 1890s.

His technique evolved too, and he increasingly painted alla prima, directly onto the canvas without preparatory drawing, con brio almost to a fault. He painted multiple layers so quickly that he sometimes broke the painter’s rule never to lay thin on fat (if thinned paint with more solvent in it is laid onto thicker paint that has more medium in it, which has not fully dried, the thinner layer will dry first, leading to cracking). Anemones is typical of this fast manner of painting, but mercifully without the cracking. Waterhouse has painted a beautiful finished face in the centre, with looser treatment towards the edges, and laid on the rich and sonorous colour with large square brushstrokes. Waterhouse’s friend and neighbour William Logsdail, his brother- in-law Peregrine Feeney, and the Frank Dicksee all painted ‘directly’ in this manner, inimical to the training of the Academy schools, but there is an impetuosity to Waterhouse's work missing from the work of other painters. His oil sketches have the sudden attack of a successful ambush with minimal forces, not the careful finish of a meticulously planned campaign. With Anemones, Waterhouse has succeeded with the boldness of a painter used to drawing quickly with the brush, and with the confidence not to spoil his work by over-finishing.

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Last modified 16 June 2022