Hylas and the Nymphs

Hylas and the Nymphs. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.].

John William Waterhouse was the last great classical painter of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. He painted in a highly individual and romantic style, drawing from subjects of classical legend, like Leighton, but reinterpreting them in a uniquely poetic and imaginative way, like Burne-Jones (Wood, 224). Among the cadre of Olympians, Waterhouse had the singular ability for combining reality and poetry. He was more of a realist than Burne-Jones but cared much less for historical and archaeological accuracy than Alma-Tadema. Thus Waterhouse had a knack for making legends of antiquity come alive without stripping them of their poetic and imaginative qualities.

Although Waterhouse's early Roman scenes resembled Alma-Tadema's technique, by the mid 1880s his pictures became more romantic and his style more individual. "For Waterhouse," writes Wood, "realism was always modified by his ideas of beauty, which were those of a conventional and decorous Victorian Royal Academician. Waterhouse could interpret a theme with considerable dramatic power, but he used realism to heighten the imaginative and poetic mood" (Wood, 228). Among an extraordinary succession of masterpieces in the 1890s, Hylas and the Nymphs remains Waterhouse's most celebrated work. It alone epitomizes the very Victorian, eclectic style that distinguished him as a preeminent Olympian.

Hylas and the Nymphs depicts the climactic scene of a story told by Ovid. Summarized by Peter Trippi: "Having killed Hylas's father, Herakles raised the orphan as his son and lover. Both sailed with Jason, who stopped on an island; sent for fresh water, Hylas was lured into the pond by naiads and drowned" (Trippi, 145). Notably, Waterhouse set this Greek tale with English models in an English wood, a strategy, reports Trippi, he had pursued for years. In terms of realism, the painting is a mixed bag. Plot wise, it is a faithful representation of the story. But Hylas never would have met fair Victorian models, all with such an unmistakable Waterhouse look, on a Mediterranean island. Artistically, however, his nymphs are real even if they lack the photographic quality favored by Leighton and Alma-Tadema, especially when compared to Burne-Jones's figures.

Critics differed in assessing Hylas and the Nymphs. A.C.R. Carter complained that Waterhouse suggested "none of the gladness which the classic legend's undercurrent of blissful immortality contains" (Trippi, 149). Other critics complained all of the girls looked the same, or at least too much like Burne-Jones's nymphs. But at least one critic, J.E. Phythian, director of Manchester's municipal gallery, drew a critical distinction: "Burne-Jones retold these old-world stories with little or no realism. Mr. Waterhouse retells them as one would do who believed them" (Trippi, 149). The absence of sharp edges and translucent water-lilies give the painting a dream-like quality, but the real and distinctly English elements make the legend of antiquity come alive. Other critics picked up on Waterhouse's eclectic style. The Magazine of Art hailed it as a masterpiece, at the very least equaling "the highest qualities of Sir Edward Burne-Jones at his most delightful period."

The color is not so robust as usual, but it is subtler; the drawing is, perhaps, daintier than ever, and not only daintier but more masterly and more poetical. The grouping of these sweet-eyed nymphs is superb in its apparent accident; their fair forms rise like flowers from among the lily-leaves; the flesh tones are cool and beautiful in colour; and a spirit of real poetry pervades the canvas. (Cited in Wood, 235).

Because he could blend poetry and reality so well, Waterhouse was the ideal interpreter of ancient myth.

Victorian Classicism in Painting: Common Inspiration with Eclectic Ends


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

Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters, 1860-1914. London: Constable, 1983.

Last modified 15 Mayy 2007