John William Waterhouse was born in Rome, where his parents, both painters, lived for some years. On coming to England, Waterhouse studied first at his father's studio, then at the Royal Academy Schools from 1870. His early classical paintings were much influenced by Laurens Alma Tadema, and he also produced lighter pictures of Italian life. Subsequently he began to depict more poetical subjects, especially from Tennyson, and later, Homer. By 1891 Waterhouse had discovered a beautiful model who features in most of his important pictures after that date. Her name is not known. Waterhouse became ARA in 1885 and RA in 1895. By this period his reputation was great, and his art was compared to that of Burne-Jones and Leighton.
While very much a classical painter, Waterhouse has been often classed as a Pre-Raphaelite, because of his dedication to beautiful girls in the Pre-Raphaelite style, fondness for the idea of the femme fatale, and realism. His most Pre-Raphaelite painting is The Lady of Shalott (1888), and some of his other important paintings are The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883), Consulting the Oracle (1884), Saint Eulalia (1885), Ulysses and the Sirens (1891), La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1893), Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), A Mermaid (1901), and Echo and Narcissus (1903).
Waterhouse, half a generation later than the other classicists, continuing well into the twentieth century, had a great influence on younger artists. Among his followers may be put Frank Dicksee, Arthur Hacker, Herbert James Draper and Byam Shaw.
The Tate Gallery has St. Eulalia, and also in London is A Mermaid, Waterhouse's Diploma picture at the Royal Academy. In the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool is Echo and Narcissus, which captures the very essence of narcissism, and at Manchester is Hylas and the Water Nymphs. The Enchanted Garden and The Decameron are at the Lady Lever Gallery. Leeds has The Lady of Shalott, and Penelope and the Suitors is in Aberdeen. In Australia, The Favourites of the Emperor Honarius and Circe are at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and Ulysses and the Sirens is at the National Gallery of Australia.
A portrait of Waterhouse by Alma Tadema is in the National Portrait Gallery.
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