In total, Waterhouse produced a staggering 118 paintings in his lifetime. He had an interesting life that impacted significantly on the British art scene, so his biography is captivating to read.
Although Waterhouse is known as an English artist, his biography begins in his birthplace, Rome. He was born on 1849 to his parents, William and Isabella Waterhouse.
Waterhouse’s parents were both English painters and had moved to Italy to work. The exact date of his birth is unknown. However, he was baptised on the 6th April of that year and this is often credited as his date of birth. According to Peter Trippi, a scholar of Waterhouse’s work, there is evidence to suggest he was actually born between the 1st and 23rd January 1849.
In the same year as Waterhouse’s birth, some of the earliest members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began to cause a stir in the art scene at London. Some of the most notable artists amongst them included William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The Waterhouses decided to return to England in 1854 when John William Waterhouse was just five years of age. They lived in a newly built home in South Kensington, London, which was located close to the Victoria and Albert Museum. ‘Nino’, as Waterhouse was nicknamed, would spend a lot of time there and also at both the National Gallery and the British Museum. His artistic parents encouraged their son to sketch during these visits.
Throughout his teens and into early adulthood, Waterhouse would assist his father in the studio. This enhanced his passion for art further. In 1870, became a student at the Royal Academy of Art school. Initially, he studied as a sculptor. He then switched courses to study painting.
Although he is known as a Pre-Raphaelite painter, his earlier works were not in this style. However, his paintings did have a classical theme. His early works were often compared to those of Frederic Leighton and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. He chose to exhibit his work at the Society of British Artists and the Dudley Gallery.
Waterhouse’s ‘Sleep and His Half-Brother Death’ was exhibited in 1984 in the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy. Following the success of this painting, Waterhouse continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy’s exhibition every year until 1916. The only exceptions to this were in 1890 and 1915. His work gained popularity and Waterhouse made an impact on the London art scene. This led to his work ‘After the Dance’ being allocated the prime position in the summer exhibition of 1876. After his success, Waterhouse’s paintings began to get larger.
John William Waterhouse was a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour between 1883 and 1889 when he resigned. This was in spite of the fact that most of his work was painted in oils.
In 1884, Waterhouse submitted his work ‘Consulting the Oracle’ to the Royal Academy. This piece received excellent reviews from art critics and Sir Henry Tate purchased the painting. Sir Henry Tate became a fan of Waterhouse’s paintings and later purchased ‘The Lady of Shallot’, a painting Waterhouse exhibited in the 1888 Royal Academy exhibition.
During the mid-1880s, Waterhouse exhibited many of his works at the Grosvenor Gallery. He also exhibited his work in galleries in some of the major cities in England, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Some of his art, including ‘Mariamne’, were also exhibited abroad. This was part of the international symbolist movement.
‘The Lady of Shallot’ was one of the first of Waterhouse’s paintings that demonstrated his interest in Pre-Raphaelite themes, such as powerful or tragic femme fatales. He actually produced three different versions of this painting in 1888, 1894and 1916. Some other examples of Waterhouse’s paintings that followed the femme fatale theme include Cleopatra, Circe Invidiosa, several versions of Lamia and La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
In addition to painting, Waterhouse also taught art at St. John’s Wood Art School. In 1895, he was elected the status of Academician. Byam Shaw, a neo-Pre-Raphaelite artist, was among his students. Waterhouse served on the Royal Academy Council and joined the St. John’s Wood Arts Club.
For his diploma work, Waterhouse had intended to submit ‘A Mermaid’. Unfortunately, he did not complete the painting in time and chose to submit his’ Ophelia’ of 1888 instead. Waterhouse did not complete ‘The Mermaid’ until 1900. ‘Ophelia’ of 1888 was lost for almost a century but is now part of an art collection owned by Lord Lloyd Webber.
This was just the first of his paintings of Ophelia as she became one of his favourite subjects. It is believed he may have been inspired by the paintings of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also painted this subject. Following his painting of Ophelia in 1888, Waterhouse painted different versions of her in 1894 and 1909.
Waterhouse instigated the War Fund in 1900 and any pictures contributed were auctioned at Christie’s. For this, Waterhouse produced ‘Destiny’ and contributed to a theatrical performance.
During the final years of his life, Waterhouse continued to paint despite suffering from cancer which had left him frail. Between 1908 and 1914, he painted a series of paintings. These were based on the legend of Persephone. This inspired him to create more work based on mythology and literature in 1916. These included Isolde, Miranda and Tristram.
Waterhouse had also planned to paint an additional painting for the Ophelia series. Unfortunately, he never completed this before his death. His final painting was ‘The Enchanted Garden’. However, this was also unfinished and was found at his easel after his death. The public can see this final painting as it is now on display as part of the collection at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy in 1883. His wife was the daughter of an art schoolmaster. She had artistic talents herself and had exhibited her work at the Royal Academy. These consisted predominantly of flower paintings. The couple lived together over his Primrose studios. First at number three and then later at number six. Their homes were later occupied by artists including Patrick Caulfield and Arthur Rackham. Although the couple had two children together, they both tragically died in childhood.
Very little else is known about his personal life as there are very few artefacts from his life to fill in the blanks. The only known historical documents linked to Waterhouse are letters detailing who modelled for his work. These included Mary Lloyd and Angelo Colorossi. The former was a model who sat for ‘Flaming June’, a masterpiece by Lord Leighton. The latter was an Italian model who sat for many Victorian artists, including Burne-Jones, Leighton, Millais, Watts and Sargent.
The biography of John Willian Waterhouse ends with his death on 10th February 1917. He died from cancer, from which he had suffered for several years. His wife, Esther, outlived him by 27 years. She died peacefully in a nursing home in 1944. The couple are laid to rest beside each other at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.