top of page

 The Femmes fatales of John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse was born on April 6, 1849, in Rome. His parents were British and both painters. He was a painter during the late Victorian era and embraced the ideas of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood", continuing their work.

When still a child, his family moved to London, South Kensington. In 1871 he began studying at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and started his artistic career. Initially, he chose to work with classical subjects, which were strongly influenced by the classicist spirit of Alma-Tantama and Frederick Leighton, while also he was specialized for some time in Roman mythology.

The scenes of the mythology and history of ancient Greece and Rome generally inspired him, and from them, he drew his themes. In 1874, exhibiting his work "Sleep and his half-brother Death" was a great success and received rave reviews. He had similar success with his subsequent paintings. In the mature period of his career, he became independent from the shackles of the academic style and began to receive influences from the painters of the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" and the artists of Impressionism. One of Waterhouse's most popular artwork was "Ophelia" of 1888, where the influences of the pre-Raphaelite painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais are evident.

Also, in the same year, Waterhouse painted the first of three versions of The Lady of Shalott (1888); now housed in the Tate Gallery in London and is one of his most famous works. The work was inspired by a poem by Alfred Tennyson as well as the medieval stories of Arthur. The story is about a girl who fell in love with the knight Lancelot. The work is considered to be a study in landscape painting, as the reflections of the water, the leaves, and the reeds have been carefully designed and with special artistic mastery.

As it is well known, the ethics of Victorian society as well as its general conservatism did not allow nudity. The depiction of mythological scenes was a pretext for many artists to be able to bypass taboos and perform female nudity more freely in a society that generally excluded it (of course, there were exceptions in high society pornography). One such painting is "Hylas and Nymphs", in which Waterhouse adopted the bright colours and the feminine type represented by the pre-Raphaelite style of Rossetti and Burne-Jones.

The painting tells the classic myth from Homer's Odyssey. Hylas was an Argonaut, a companion of Hercules, who landed at Troy and found a spring inhabited by the Nymphs. Those young and beautiful Nymphs -of course, seduced the beautiful Hyla, and since then no one ever heard of him again.

The sensuality of the painting is evident with the bare breasts and the sensual beautiful faces of the Nymphs and Hyla. The work exudes hidden eroticism and sensuality, as the Nymphs essentially invite the beautiful Hylas to the realm of erotic pleasures.

But the main theme of Waterhouse's paintings was the femme fatale, the witch, the seductive yet also the dangerous woman. Waterhouse's femmes fatales include well-known figures of mysterious females such as Circe, Medea, Pandora, the Nymphs mentioned above, the Mermaids and the Sirens, the Lamies, and the Naiads. Some people have referred to the artist's tendency to paint almost exclusively femmes fatales as a psychosis, an obsession. Some do not believe that there were some psychological or social motivations that he wanted to break. Waterhouse is said to have been one of the most dedicated members of the "Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn" that was active in Britain and studied the practices of occultism and metaphysics. Clearly, in their secret teachings of the 19th century, the sacred female was worshipped and given extraordinary powers as the mother of all, the female principle.

Waterhouse created the most characteristic witch of Art in the painting "The Magic Circle" in 1886. The painting depicts the witch making a magic circle of protection with her stick, while with her other hand she holds the scythe with which she cuts the herbs, which she has already put in her belt. On her neck, she wears the ouroboros, a symbol of magic and the eternal movement of the Cosmos. In front of her, boils a cauldron whose potion creates forms or messages, which the witch tries to "read".

It is believed that the artist admired or even envied the innate magical powers that nature gave to women and through his art, he expressed his awe, desire, and perhaps his jealousy of the female. It is no coincidence that in his paintings the male figures are always depicted as victims. Were they versions of himself?

For example, in the work "Circe offering the Cup to Ulysses", the witch offers the transformation potion to Odysseus. The figure of Odysseus is reflected in the mirror behind Circe, and his face is a self-portrait of the Painter. The artist stands in awe and fear in front of the witch, ready to take the glass she offers.

Waterhouse married Esther Kenworthy in 1883, but they had no children together. After his marriage, however, a procession full of masterpieces began. In the last years of his life, Waterhouse continued painting until he was diagnosed with cancer in 1917. Esther's wife lived for another 27 years and died in 1944 in a nursing home. Today she is buried with her husband in Kensal Green Cemetery in north London.

One of Waterhouse's latest works, “The Enchanted Garden”, which was left unfinished due to his death, is now in the Lever Gallery in Liverpool.

Waterhouse through his magic paintings left a great legacy in pre-Raphaelite art, but also in Art in general, since it was an inspiration for many artists around the world. Unfortunately, after his death, his wife burned all his diaries, so there is a big gap about his deepest thoughts and feelings that could help de-symbolize his works. Nevertheless, his paintings continue to enchant us through their dreamy atmosphere and the mystery they exude, as well as the beauty of nature and human existence.

The Pre-Raphaelites were a secret group, mainly of English artists, founded in 1848 with the request to renew the painting through the imitation of Italian painters before Raphael. The main representatives of the Brotherhood -as it was called- were: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. The Brotherhood itself, as well as its work, made a stir in the society since it opposed academic painting and industrialization.

It is said that later on four other artists were added to the Brotherhood, who did not play a catalytic role in the events or its art. However, it is believed that their addition to the brotherhood was made, possibly in order to complete the magic number 7- a number that was a cornerstone in their symbolism.

The Pre-Raphaelites were artists and poets. They loved the beauty of the body but also of nature. Their illustrations with refined care and detail capture the dream. To them, Florentine painting seemed magical. The women who inspired them were women of everyday life that through their art, their proportions, and their characteristics transformed them into ethereal beings. The Brotherhood separated after five years. Despite the criticism they received, the Pre-Raphaelites were innovative, dreamy yet revolutionaries of Art who defied its structures and boundaries. Their legacy is enormous, and although the Brotherhood broke up relatively soon, their influence continued to inspire Artists for many years.

Imaginarium Magazine issue 3, March 2021

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page