Hylas and the Nymphs is a story within the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts in which they set sail for the iconic Golden Fleece. Today, Hylas and the Nymphs remains Waterhouse's most accomplished and world renowned work of art.
It is still unknown why Waterhouse was so driven to paint such a picture. Many art critics believe that he was drawn to the natural and idyllic environment of the legend, and that both the women and nymphs in the story intrigued him with their magic and great power.
He obviously found something appealing which eventually drew him to paint this masterpiece. Manchester Arts Gallery decided to buy the painting shortly after Waterhouse had finished painting it.
The painting depicts Hylas, who was a warrior, an Argonaut, as well as that of an incredibly handsome man. His role in the story was to fetch water once they had reached the shore. When he found a pool of water in which to fetch water, he placed his pitcher in and it was then that he noticed he was surrounded by many nymphs.
He was stunned and therefore stopped fetching the water in order to kiss one of them. The remainder of the story is unknown, as Hylas simply disappeared. The island was searched several times over, but he was never found. The ship eventually had to leave without him.
Waterhouse was a classical artist, who was influenced from a very young age by other classical painters such as Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema. This is clearly evident when observing the scenery and characterisation in Hylas and the Nymphs. What is unique about this painting is that our eyes are not drawn to the character of Hylas, who is the central character of this Greek myth, but rather to one nymph, the one who entices him into the water.
We cannot view him properly, as he is facing away from the observer, with only his back on view. Perhaps Waterhouse painted the picture in such a way, so that we could see the image from Hylas's viewpoint. What is obvious, while observing this evocative imagery, is that the nymph concerned is acting in the the role of a femme fatale.
Hylas and the Nymphs is an incredibly intricate composition, with many figures incorporated into the overall imagery. What is magical, is that the background remains interesting, but does not detract from the central figures. The nymphs in particular, are painted in such a way, that it is obvious that they are about to lure him away from his colleagues.
Waterhouse was well known for his use of colour and texture, and in Hylas and the Nymphs, he has managed to paint the nymphs with luminous skin, that both echo and reflect the clear waters of the lake. Also, in painting the nymphs in an ethereal light, Hylas is made to appear more human with his dark olive skin tone. In legend, Hylas is described as an incredibly handsome man, but as an observer we cannot see his face, so his beauty is unseen. Perhaps Waterhouse saw this point as irrelevant, preferring the viewer to be overwhelmed and drawn to the nymphs beauty, just as Hylas too was hypnotised.
It was well known that to create the perfect composition for his paintings, Waterhouse often utilised the services of models. Due to the watery nature of the painting, Waterhouse could not have recreated the scene in his art studio, but perhaps Waterhouse based the nymphs in his paintings on those of nymph models.