Masterpiece Stories

Painting of the Week: John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot

Guest Profile 10 November 2019 min Read

Elaine, the white lady of Shallot’s island, portrayed by John William Waterhouse is locked in a tower where she is only able to see the world through a mirror and recreate life through the weaving of a tapestry.

 Waterhouse Lady of Shallot
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot, 1888, Tate Britain.

The Lady of Shalott is a lyrical ballad written by the English poet Alfred Tennyson. This poem is based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a 13th-century Italian novel titled Donna di Scalotta.

Tennyson's enigmatic symbolism and vivid medieval romanticism inspired many painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites, John William Waterhouse among them.

Waterhouse embraced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's style and subject matter. Many of his artworks were inspired by ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legends.

The Lady of Shalott is one of the most famous paintings by Waterhouse painted in 1888. You can find this painting in the Tate Britain, London.

Elaine, who is forbidden to look outside at the world due to a curse, sees through her mirror Sir Lancelot passing by on his horse. Elaine is compared to the island, presented as a part of the landscape, literally and symbolically embowered within it, locked in a tower.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot, 1888, Tate Britain, detail.

When Lancelot makes his entrance Elaine's demise begins with her first view of him; her death is a reaction to Lancelot and all he represents. Her reaction makes her discover the natural world outside the window and beyond her mirror. The mirror cracks from side to side, signalling Elaine's inevitable doom. Recognizing her own ‘curse’, she cries out, breaking her previous silence. Her body is found by habitants of Camelot, included Lancelot, who praises her soul.

In the background of the painting we can see how the light is brighter because it is the only place where she can find hope, despite her curse and her unavoidable ending. The light is darker and dimmer on the left part because she knows the consequences of breaking the curse.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot, 1888, Tate Britain, detail.

The candles represent her life: Two of them are already blown up but the third one is still on: She's in the last passage of her life. Her white dress symbolizes purity, innocence and love. Her facial expression highlights two possible feelings: Her melancholy and her acceptance of death.

Waterhouse Lady of Shallot
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot, 1888, Tate Britain, detail.

Elaine is representative of traditional 19ty century femininity, characterized by her passivity and her enclosure. She is ‘cursed’ by her sexual desire, as Eve was cursed for ‘tempting’ Adam. We can appreciate Waterhouse's paintings where he portrays women's desire to break free from the chains of the century.

Waterhouse Lady of Shallot
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot Looking at Lancelot, 1895.
Waterhouse Lady of Shallot
John William Waterhouse, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shallot, 1915.

Marta De La Iglesia Ramos


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