Waterhouse – British Pre Raphaelite Genius and His Essex Muse

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

Painters of all eras and eons have splashed their paints on the canvas to bring women alive in various forms. From portraits to en Plein air technique, you can find women being depicted in all her grace and beauty on the canvases by various artists. Once such artists, that we are going to introduce to you today is none other than the active participant of the pre-raphaelites movement – John William Waterhouse! And some of his work was inspired by his muse who lived in Essex.

Who is John William Waterhouse?

Born in Rome to an English family, Waterhouse spent his early days roaming around the streets learning all about ancient Rome. Later, he moved to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art where he started his journey of exhibiting his artwork in the exhibition to leave his audience awed! Waterhouse paintings more or less had various scenes portraying Roman mythology and women in many beautiful forms.

Before turning into one of the main players in the pre-Raphaelites movement, Waterhouse artist illustrated his ideas on the canvas in lines with the then celebrated romantic artists Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton. One of his most favorites and popular among the art community was – Sleep and his Half-brother Death of 1874.

Another painting that made the art lovers go crazy back then was – After the Dance, 1876. By the turn of 1880, Waterhouse started showing the Pre-Raphaelites style in his romanticized paintings. There on, his masterpieces were a great mixture of Pre-Raphaelite and Neoclassical.

Muriel Foster, the Essex Muse

Lamia by John William Waterhouse
Lamia by John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse had many muses who provided him with inspiration for his paintings, and also modelled for him. One such muse was Muriel Foster, who was from Chingford.

Waterhouse’s first painting of Muriel was in 1893, and played the part of the femme fatale in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, a painting inspired by the poem by John Keats. It is believed she was only 15 years old at the time.

Muriel Foster also appeared as two angels playing stringed instruments in the 1895 painting “St Cecilia”, along with similar images or nymphs in “Hylas and The Nymphs” in 1896.

She modelled as “Lamia” in 1905 and Waterhouse continued to paint her feminine beauty for many decades to follow. Muriel was one his favourite models and her image is seen in many pieces, even when another woman is modelling – often her features would be used to create the perfect vision of beauty, with just the colour of the hair changing, either being  red, auburn, dark brown, or black, to create different moods within the painting.

Let Us Admire Some of the Waterhouse Paintings

Waterhouse artist was well-known for the Pre-Raphaelites style of women paintings that depicted the female personas in their crude, friendly way in the pleasant backdrops of nature! Here are a few of the Waterhouse paintings that one cannot miss talking about!

Hylas and the Nymphs

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

As a personal project, Waterhouse created this masterpiece that was hailed by the greatest art critics of the time. With the bold color choices, great attention to details and the romanticized tragic story, this painting welcomed lauds and respect!

In this piece of art, you can see how handsome young man is enchanted, yet trapped by the beauty of the water nymphs. Little did he know that these beautiful yet vicious creatures are going to be the reason for his last breath! With the awe-inspiring backdrop and the choice of colors, you cannot help but admire the work with wide eyes and open mouth!

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

This picture depicts the story of a woman who was locked in the confines of a tower and could look at the outside world through a mirror. One day when she found a charming man, Knight Lancelot, passing by her tower. She couldn’t help but come out of the tower and go in search of the man using the fashionable boat depicted in the picture.

However, the poor lady suffered death because of the curse that was put on her! You can see the desperate, yet determined eyes searching for the prince charming and at the same time her figure preparing for the inevitable! Waterhouse’s painting, depicting a poem by Lord Tennyson, became an instant sensational choice among various artists and art lovers alike!

Boreas by John William WaterhouseBoreas

Being a huge fan of Greek mythology, Waterhouse’s paintings were somehow connected to the history of Rome. In this art, he has personified the Greek god of wind, Boreas and named the painting after her. With the intricate and perfect brush strokes, he has not missed out on giving us a detailed effect of this young lady enjoying her time with nature.

One cannot help but get mesmerized by how the light and shadow play around in this painting. And her face is one that says how much she is enjoying being lost in the wild yet the soothing wind!

A Mermaid by John William WaterhouseA Mermaid

Nobody has seen a mermaid and yet, here is Waterhouse depicting her beautifully in one of his master artworks. Being completely opposite of what pre-raphaelite art form was meant to be, this particular painting has come directly out of the artist’s imagination house. Although it lacks his ideology, one simply cannot stop and admire the mermaid he has painted. The beautiful eyes, figure and long hair dropping so elegantly all the way down her back can attract any man alive. However, you will feel the pain when you realize that she is half a fish and belongs to another world entirely!


Ophelia by John William WaterhouseAnother classic Waterhouse painting that caught every art lover by surprise is Ophelia. The artist was always striving to bring many characters depicted in the classical literature, alive with a touch of pre-Raphaelite style. And he never failed to succeed in his venture.

One such installation in this genre was a Shakespearean character that is seen lying on the grass, completely carefree and lost in her thoughts on a summer day. The dreamy eyes and sensual nature of the woman is something you cannot miss. When you finally manage to take your eyes off the enchantress, you will notice the highly detailed trees, flowers, shrubs that surround her so gracefully.

Discover More Of His Works

When you turn to look at Waterhouse artworks, you will notice that their style has artistic and literary variations due to the influential art world. Although he has borrowed ideas and molded them with his own thoughts and imagination to bring out some of the commendable art pieces, you simply cannot ignore the love he has for the place of his birth – Rome along with the history and mythology associated with it.

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