The original poem was from 1830, whilst this painting from Waterhouse followed in 1900. It was well received by the Royal Academy, an institution that the artist had been strongly connected to for several decades. It was only after he passed away that his own fame was replaced by a greater interest in his specific works, rather than the artist himself.
The poem talks of a Mermaid combing her hair, and this is the depiction chosen by the artist here. The very theme of a mermaid is ideally suited to his preference for depicting the feminine and classic beauty of women alongside themes of mythology and poetry. She sits calmly on the shore, as waves draw in around her. An arched rock scene completes the background. The pebbled shore helps to place it within the UK, as with all of his work.
The theme may appear to be pure minded at first glance but actually this artist also saw a darker side to this mythological creature, where the elegant femininity could be used to trap men. There remains a lack of clarity over quite the artist's specific intentions in this piece, but the pearls found in the scene may have been directly from sailor's tears as they passed away. She also looks alluring, rather than lonely, which would fit better with the theory of the artist using a darker symbolism.
Whilst images of the original painting can differ in colour balances, depending on how they were taken, most underline the beautiful red hair added to the mermaid. Waterhouse saw hair colour as an important way of differentiating his female figures, with many of their other features being fairly similar in terms of build, facial features and skin colour.