RA Magazine Summer 2009
Issue Number: 103
Life imitates art
The Pre-Raphaelite ideal of female beauty is back, judging by the looks of some current screen idols. Debra N. Mancoff tracks the influence of the Waterhouse Woman
The resemblance is remarkable. Separated by more than a century, the woman in the painting and the film still of Keira Knightley share a compelling beauty. Their faces seem carved from the same template: chiselled profile, high cheek-bones, a defined facial contour with a forward thrust of the chin and jaw. In both images the eyes smoulder beneath dark, well-defined brows. They both have long necks with a columnar strength and grace. Their pale skin – touched with a flush of rose at the
cheeks and lips – appears luminous. Indeed, the way in which actress Keira Knightley appears in this still from the film Atonement (2007), is so strikingly similar to the woman in John William Waterhouse’s painting Windflowers (1902) that we may well marvel at how closely an ideal in art can be mirrored in life.
The iconic ‘Waterhouse Woman’ is seen in more than 60 of the paintings made by the artist between 1889 and 1917. She is portrayed in every imaginable guise. She personifies
the vulnerable Ophelia, the serene Saint Cecilia, or the distraught lady of Shalott. But she also embodies the fatal temptress Circe, the irresistible sirens, and mermaids who lure men into their watery lairs. While her character might vary, her image did not and, through repetition, Waterhouse forged an icon of beauty that became his signature. Yet despite her unmistakable features, her identity remains unknown. It is more than likely that Waterhouse created his own ideal to represent the magnitude of female beauty in his art.
The preference for ideal beauty over specific likeness had long been part of artistic practice with deep roots in classical, as well as medieval traditions. But in choosing such a particular type Waterhouse reflected a later development. The Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti crafted his own iconic beauty, first from the slender, red-haired Elizabeth Siddal, and then from the intense, strongfeatured Jane Morris. In the case of each of his muses, his choice was unconventional. In her day, Siddal’s red hair was regarded as a flaw rather than an asset, and Morris’s beauty was
generally described as odd or exotic. But Rossetti’s persistent celebration of their images in his work challenged the conventions of popular beauty and set new standards. When Henry James actually met Morris in 1869, he found her as ‘strange and unreal’ as the woman in Rossetti’s paintings. He confessed that it was hard to tell ‘whether she’s an original or a copy’, but he admitted, ‘in either case she is a wonder’.
Photographs of Jane Morris bear witness to her strange beauty but, before long, this
original was widely copied. In 1891 Oscar Wilde observed a curious phenomenon in the rise of a ‘fascinating type of beauty’ seen at every artistic salon or private view. These women were graced with ‘the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream’, with ‘the long ivory throat, the strange squarecut jaw’. Wilde understood that Rossetti’s imaginative innovation made it possible to recognise a new kind of beauty in the real world, confirming his belief that: ‘Life imitates art far more than art imitates life’.
Others were not so impressed. In Punch, the cartoonist George du Maurier caricatured the new ideal as emaciated, frizzy-haired and feverishly intense, while writer Mary Eliza Haweis wryly labelled Rossetti and his followers ‘the plain girls’ best friends’.
Waterhouse avoided the more extreme aspects of Pre-Raphaelite beauty, tempering the otherworldly ideal with classical composure and wholesome Naturalism. And for a timeless ideal,the ‘Waterhouse Woman’ projects a surprisingly contemporary image. Think of Hollywood beauties posed in Waterhouse tableaux: Audrey Tautou, the gamine star of the 2001 movie Amélie, in Hylas and the Nymphs of 1896 (opposite page); the passionate Salma Hayek in Destiny (1900), the comely Ms Knightley in Miranda (1916).
There is even a website community that invites ‘Waterhouse Woman’ look-alikes to send in their own photos to be paired with iconic paintings. Claire for instance, a painter who lives in Georgia, originally from Reading, England, thinks she may be a candidate for A Mermaid of 1900 (see front cover of this issue), while another look-alike, Sabrina, has gone as far as making herself the dress from the painting The Lady Clare (1900). Even today, the ‘Waterhouse Woman’ mirrors our own sense of beauty, seducing us to believe that life can imitate art.
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