By Deena Sherman
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) usually painted sensual, although some would say superficial, pictures. His colors were rich and his technique was superb. After the Dance (1876), which depicts two young children, is typical. Sleep and His Half-Brother Death (1874) is less usual because of its subject matter and its depth of feeling.
Born in Rome to English parents who were artists, Waterhouse, also called “Nino”, returned with his family to England and attended the Royal Academy Schools. Sleep and his Half-Brother Death (27.5″ by 36″) stem from personal tragedy and family deaths, according to author Anthony Hobson. His mother died from tuberculosis when Waterhouse was eight and his younger brothers later succumbed to the same disease.
The bright foreground contrasts with the deep, shadowed background of this painting. The contrast represents the transition to death. The near figure holding the poppies is asleep while the figure in the shadows, his head thrown back and looking somewhat less restful, represents death. The painting was showcased at the artist’s first exhibit at the Royal Academy.
After the Dance (30″ by 50″) depicts two children, a girl lying down on a cushion and another, who has sometimes been described as a boy but is most likely a girl, sitting at her side. The two look equally worn out from dancing. They are dressed in Greek clothing and a group of figures in the distant left are similarly dressed. The simple architecture is Roman and the colors are muted yet rich, giving a laid-back after-the-dance feeling.
Waterhouse in another painting titled A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius also depicted the two children, believed to be the older children of a Lady Clare. The painting is typical of Waterhouse’s depictions of girls who remain indefinitely innocent. It is also typical of the artist’s ability to portray spaciousness and serenity.
Waterhouse had been classified as a Pre-Raphaelite painter but is now thought of more as a Romantic Classicist. One of his earliest teachers was his father, William Waterhouse, who exhibited his own works and died in 1890.
Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy, who was 25 when he was 34, in 1883. The newly married couple lived in an artistic colony in Primrose Hill. They had two children but, tragically, both died.
In 1899, the Boer War had begun in South Africa. Waterhouse donated some of his work to the Artists’ War Fund in support of the war effort and the British troops the following year.
Waterhouse died in 1917 after a long fight with cancer, leaving his final work, The Enclosed Garden unfinished.
Waterhouse is considered one of the best British artists of the last half of the 19th century. His technique was outstanding; he was fortunate to paint before the modernists became popular because he probably would have been overlooked. His other paintings are worth a closer look. Windflowers (1903) and The Lady of Shalott (1888), my personal favorites, are very typical of his style.
J W Waterhouse by Anthony Hobson, 1992
J.A. Blaikie, ‘J W Waterhouse, ARA’, The Magazine of Art, 1886
The Art Journal, Vol. XV, 1876