British Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse, known to many as “Nino”, was most famous for his paintings of female characters from mythology and literature.
John William Waterhouse was born in Rome to British painters William and Isabella Waterhouse on April 6, 1849. His family moved from Rome to South Kensington, England when John was six years old. His tutorage in art came from his father, until he was accepted at the Royal Academy in 1870.
In the early 1870s, most of Waterhouse’s works were scenes from ancient history or classical genre subjects, influenced by artist Laurens Alma Tadema. An important piece from that period is ‘La Fileuse’ (1874). At the age of twenty-five, he exhibited ‘Sleep and His Half-Brother Death’ in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition. This painting emerged from the deaths of his two younger brothers who died from tuberculosis.
In 1883, Waterhouse fell in love and married artist Esther Kenworthy, the daughter of an art schoolmaster from Ealing. His wife exhibited her paintings of floral subjects at the Royal Academy from time to time. The couple had two children who both died in childhood.
Pre-Raphaelites, such as John William Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, rebelled against the still life and landscape painting of the 19th century, and were more in favor of classical forms inspired by the Italian Renaissance. In the 1880s, Waterhouse turned to literary themes, painting in a dreamy, romantic style. His illustrations of classic myths were treated with attractive fantasy. The Pre-Raphaelite influence was evident in his approach, but the hues were richer and more sensuous. A more modern manner of painting emphasized atmosphere with less focus on design.
Around 1885, the artist was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. It was around that time that he exhibited his most famous masterpiece ‘The Lady of Shalott’. This was a study of Elaine of Astolat’s grief over Lancelot’s denial of love, which ultimately causes her to wither away. While other artists have painted her, Waterhouse's rendition is among the most famous. He enjoyed portraying women from Shakespeare, more particularly Ophelia from Hamlet. He first painted her in 1899 lying in a meadow. His other versions are more dramatic as they show her at the water’s edge before drowning. A decade later, Waterhouse was elected to full Academician and served on the Royal Academy Council.
The artist was never able to finish his series of Ophelia paintings because he was gravely ill with cancer. He died in 1917 in his 68th year, leaving his final work 'The Enclosed Garden' unfinished. In his lifetime, John William Waterhouse created over two hundred paintings, and was one of the most accomplished British painters of the second half of the 19th century.