John William Waterhouse RA (1849–1917) was one of the greatest artists of his age and maintained close connections with the Royal Academy of Arts throughout his working life. He entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1870 and within just four years had his first painting hung at the prestigious annual Summer Exhibition. During the early stages of his career, Waterhouse followed in the artistic footsteps of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) by paying close attention to archaeological detail and portraying everyday scenes from the Classical past.
In 1885, Waterhouse was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy following the success of St Eulalia at the Summer Exhibition of that year. This image of a martyred 12-year-old girl was the first of many paintings by Waterhouse that took the tragic fate of a woman as its subject matter. Waterhouse’s Consulting the Oracle, painted a year earlier, is also important as it marks the beginning of his fascination with magic and the occult. Indeed, it was supernatural and potentially dangerous women that Waterhouse increasingly chose to paint. As his concern for conveying narrative declined, the beauty of his female subjects became the predominant focus of his works.
During his lifetime, Waterhouse was praised for the high level of craftsmanship that he exhibited in his works. His detailed rendering of different surfaces and textures no doubt stemmed from his encounters with the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the previous generation. His contemporaries also associated his style with French art of the time. The Lady of Shalott (1888) is regarded as Waterhouse’s most thorough engagement with the French naturalistic style. Waterhouse was himself an inspirational figure for younger artists and regularly taught at the Royal Academy Schools. In 1895, at the age of 46, he was promoted to the status of Royal Academician. He later submitted A Mermaid to the Royal Academy as his diploma work (click on the gallery above to find out more about this work).
J. W. Waterhouse RA, A Mermaid, 1900
Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 66.6 cm
© Royal Academy of Arts, London, Diploma work presented by the artist 1900
Exhibited Royal Academy, 1901
Text written by Francesca Herrick
© Royal Academy of Arts, 2009