The artwork itself features a tall young woman with her ear pressed against a cracked but decorative wall. She wears a stunning red dress which hangs loosely from her slim frame and is patterned, and also held together around the waist by a small cloth which is wrapped around her. We find a variety of ornate touches to the scene through various items of furniture, including a pretty foot stool which is placed in the foreground of the composition. We can then look beyond the figure into the background and find a detailed tiled floor as well as a window right at the back which reveals a small set of steps leading to a street which is bathed in sunlight. There are also a number of cloths which hang down around the back of this room which provide further aesthetic interest as well as giving us some valuable clues about the precise setting around which this painting has been themed.
Thisbe refers to an extract from the story of Thisbe and Pyramus in which this young lady is kept apart from the one she desires, namely Pyramus. She is therefore listening in through the wall, hoping to hear her neighbour who is also banned from seeing her in return. The story tells of how they would communicate through a small crack in the wall, and the artist incorporates that into this artwork. The tale is similar to that of Romeo and Juliet in that young love is thwarted by a combination of disapproving family members and also a turn of events which leads to confusion on all sides. Waterhouse liked such content as inspiration because it allowed him to incorporate delightful items into his work which were his interpretation of different exotic lands, which in the case of Thisbe was the ancient Babylon.
It is the Pre-Raphaelite movement which tends to take the most attention within British art in the mid to late 19th century, but Waterhouse remains highly regarded amongst the public who have warmed to his charming paintings and care little for the criticism that some threw at the artist during his own lifetime. Another highly regarded painter from around that era was Frederic Leighton who gifted us memorable paintings such as The Daphnephoria, The Painter's Honeymoon and Music Lesson and who also became involved in a wider range of artistic disciplines than Waterhouse would do. Leighton applied his academic teachings across historical painting as well as more standard portraiture and liked to push his talents into some highly complex compositions which helped to make his oeuvre particularly memorable. He also retains a strong support from the public today who appreciate this by-gone era style of work which was very common during the Victorian period.