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Friday, April 13, 2012

Two Pre-Raphaelites: Evelyn de Morgan and John William Waterhouse

Trying to find visual parallels to Ariadne auf Naxos of Richard Strauss I came upon two Pre-Raphaelite artists who found inspiration, throughout their whole life, in the paradigmatic personages of Greek mythology and Greek early history.

When I firstly found in a book a mention about the English Pre-Raphaelites I was confused. Not that I was by then a teenager and I knew very few things about art and art history; but what connection could have been between artists living in the 19th century England and Raphael? It was much later that I understood what it all was about, that Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other fellows were protesting against their days' Academia, viewed by them as unable to get out of a tired Mannerism: hence a programmatic return to the times before Raphael, to Quattrocento (and to the Flemish masters). Not Raphael was so much their target, rather Sir Joshua Reynolds (whose works are great, by the way, I saw some of them at the Washington National Gallery, and always they offered me some sentiment of certitude, some solid feeling).

Well, going earlier than Raphael, brought in their paintings an abundance of details and great colors; also, I think, some hieratic air - care for getting the sense of the story, symbolism against realism: the primacy of the story, of the semantics, over the humanity of the personage. The French Puvis de Chavannes comes to my mind (of course, he was not a Pre-Raphaelite, far from that, while his care to get the sense of the story, the paradigm, makes me think at him when I am trying to understand the thing).

These being said, let's talk a little bit (and very freely) about the four paintings shown here, authored by Evelyn De Morgan and John William Waterhouse.

If I were to compare the two Ariadne of Naxos, the one painted by John Vanderlyn in 1812 (from my previous post), and the 1877 painting of Evelyn De Morgan, I would say that while the American found in the myth just a reason to depict female nudity in all her splendor, the English artist remained faithful to the story, careful to capture all its elements (the woman abandoned on a desert place, suffering for the loss of her love). Vanderlyn's Ariadne is a celebration of voluptuousness, while De Morgan looks for the paradigm.

And as Ariadne was guarded on the island of Naxos by the three nymphs of running waters, of trees, and of the mountains, it made sense for me to add to the painting of Evelyn De Morgan (as I said, faithful to the story) some naiads and dryads. And let me here indulge in some poetry.

Evelyn De Morgan - The Dryad, 1885
De Morgan Centre, London
no copyright infringement intended

A dryad (painted also by Evelyn De Morgan), looking at us from the hollow of an oak-tree. Let's sing her a stanza from a poem by Richard Le Galienne (who lived approximately in the same period as Evelyn De Morgan):

My dryad hath her hiding place
Among ten thousand trees.
She flies to cover
At step of a lover,
And where to find her lovely face
Only the woodland bees
Ever discover,
Bringing her honey
From meadows sunny,
Cowslip and clover.

As for the naiads here, these are paintings by John William Waterhouse, a follower of the Pre-Raphaelites, also influenced by Impressionists (as he was their contemporary). Here a stanza from Neruda works well (I will come back later to the whole poem):

Eres hija del mar y prima del orégano,
nadadora, tu cuerpo es de agua pura,
cocinera, tu sangre es tierra viva
y tus costumbres son floridas y terrestres.

You are the daughter of the sea, oregano's first cousin.
Swimmer, your body is pure as the water;
cook, your blood is quick as the soil.
Everything you do is full of flowers, rich with the earth.

John William Waterhouse - Hylas with a Nymph, 1893
oil on canvas
Private Collection

no copyright infringement intended

(Old Masters)

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