The Lady Of Shalott By JW Waterhouse: From Literature to Canvas

Lady of Shalott Painting (JW Waterhouse) cover art by artsapien

“The Lady of Shalott ” is a living masterpiece created by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse in 1888. Inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s ballad of the same name, the painting depicts the Lady of Shalott who was forbidden to leave her tower near King Arthur’s Camelot because of a curse. The illustration shows the helplessness of a woman without any title or power and is accompanied by fear for her future and safety. 

The Background

Tennyson had emerged as a popular subject for all the artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. In his ballad, he retells the legend of Lady Shalott, who was cursed never to leave her tower, for it would lead to unknown consequences and take her away from her dreams and how she desired to live her life. The ballad drew a parallel with many individuals who struggle to step out of their comfort zones to achieve their dreams and experience life to the fullest. 

Lady of Shalott Poem by Tennyson
An excerpt from “Lady of Shalott” (1842) Poem by Alfred Tennyson. Fair Use.

The ballad was divided into four parts and this painting depicts the fourth and final part of it. Waterhouse depicts the final moments when she lets go of the boat’s chains as her lips have parted to sing “her last song”.

The tapestry she meticulously weaved was draped over the boat as her eyes were fixated on the crucifix in front of her. The painter subtly hints at her near demise by adding three candles in the background, amongst which two of them were blown out, signifying that her life will end soon.   

The Subject

Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his mischance-
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot?
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;

The painting witnesses the Lady of Shalott in virginal white clothes, sitting on a boat, solemn-looking and isolated from the outer world. One could witness the chains of the boat in her right hand which she was about to loosen. The boat was draped with the colorful and vibrant tapestry, which she was doomed to weave until she became cursed by falling with Lancelot. 

On the left side of the painting, steps can be seen which were leading to a large stone building to the river. The dull and gloomy woods and unkempt reeds encompass the background. The forest was painted in dark colors, making it resemble the funeral barge which contrasts the bright colors of the tapestry.

Placed on the prow is the crucifix with a rosary draped over the corpus, which symbolizes spirituality. Three candles are placed over the boat, of which two are blown out. The three candles are meant to depict the cycle of life- birth, life, and death. The lit candle depicts the impending death for the Lady of Shalott for she looks at the level of the candle with her mouth slightly open, possibly in an action of blowing out the candle of her death.

Lady of Shalott – The Analysis

The painting depicts the despair and isolation of the Lady of Shalott, which is evident from her grave expression. Her anguish of merely watching the entire world through a small mirror was unimaginable. Her sadness would deepen as she’d watch the happy couples in the mirror, making her more desperate to have such features in her life. 

Waterhouse perfectly captured the essence of isolation in his painting by painting the dark woods and unkempt reeds behind her, depicting the conditions in which she lived. Her sufferings made her try to flee from the tower to Camelot, however, she died even before she reached her destination. 

The Color Composition

The dark and unkempt woods echo the isolation of the Lady of Shalott. The thick forest was painted with muted color tans. Earthly tones were given to the ground while the sky was represented in a shade of muted gray, making the solemnity in the air more prominent. It draws a parallel with the scene of a funeral barge which presents a contrast to the bright colors on the tapestry draped over the boat. 

Lady of Shalott Painting by JW Waterhouse
Lady of Shalott Painting (1888) by JW Waterhouse. Public Domain

The Lady of Shalott is draped in a white dress, which is used to symbolize purity, sorrow, and sacrifice. Her dress played a major contrast to the darkened background to express her innocence and purity to the dark world surrounding her. The background and the autumnal palette of the painting incorporated by Waterhouse depict her impending death.

Ending Note

“The Lady of Shalott” depicts a sad yet beautiful event in her the Lady’s life, the sadness making it more poignant to the eyes of the viewers. It is an evocative painting of unrequited love about a woman caught between death and desperation, trapped by the tragedy of love. 

Waterhouse’s impeccable attention to detail and color, expresses the beauty of nature, realist quality, and his interpretation of a vulnerable and yearning woman, which accurately depicts how weak and unsafe women would feel in those times whenever they were outdoors and alone. 

The painting is a symbol of the women who would feel apprehensive about following their dreams, with fear etched on their faces. It depicts how the lady of Shalott left the tower to live a life she always desired for herself rather than hiding away in the tower. Her solemn looks depicted her fear and concern but also pointed toward her desperation to explore the world outside the confines of the tower.

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