Within this composition we find a young boy playing music in the forest, seemingly unaware that a young maiden is close by. We then notice certain mythical features to the boy which adds a further level of complexity to the scene and require further investigation. The female figure watches him from behind some bushes, though the artist exposes her to the viewer so that we can better understand the content of this artwork. The rest of the painting is then filled with foliage which produces an atmosphere of dense forestry in which the young boy might reasonably expect to be entirely alone whilst enjoying his flute-like instrument. Waterhouse is well known for his use of mythical characters across a number of paintings and so we are almost on the look out for such things as a matter of course when coming across artworks from his oeuvre that perhaps we had not seen before. The finished painting, A Hamadryad, was over one and half metres tall but narrow, making the format slightly unusual for this artist but done in this manner because of the layout desired by Waterhouse, with the female figure above the boy, looking down on him.
A Hamadryad is actually a Greek mythological character and is known to generally live amongst the trees, a theme which the artist clearly embraces to the full here. There are many examples of where such a creature is used alongside Pan, and that is probably what we are looking at here. Pan is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks and often a companion of nymphs, and the use of hindquarters within this painting indicate the boy's identity. Waterhouse was knowledgeable on Greek mythology and several books about it were discovered in his list of possessions shortly after he passed away.
This painting can now be found in the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery on the southern English coast. This provincial institution ranks as one of the most important cultural centres in the South West of England and continues to add to its permanent display through donations and loans from elsewhere in the country. They host a number of items from the 19th century which was a key period in British art, as well as a mixture of artifacts from the local area in order to help explain the cultural history of this region. Alongside Waterhouse, some of the other key artists featured here include the likes of Edgar Degas, Edward Burne-Jones, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Claude Lorrain, John Brett and John Everett Millais.
Waterhouse was someone who made use of literature for inspiration in many of his paintings. William Blake was another British painter who came about many years earlier, but was also heavily involved in literature too, enabling him to draw the two together in different ways across his career. It is extremely rare to find someone who can work to a very high standard in both art and literature, but he achieved just that and remains highly regarded today. Some of illustrative drawings are particularly impressive, such as The Lovers' Whirlwind, The Ancient of Days and Newton. His artistic style was entirely unique and completely different to the work of Waterhouse, but both had that connection to the literary world which enabled them to delve into their own imagination and work outside the boundaries of reality.