Peter Trippi, Allentown Art Museum, and The Lady of Shalott

Sunday I drove up to Pennsylvania to hear a talk by Peter Trippi at the Allentown Art Museum. The Museum has an impressive exhibition up now of fantasy and science fiction art, At the Edge (through Sept. 9). Allentown Art Museum is delightful- it's recently completed an expansion and has a wonderful permanent collection. If you're near eastern Pennsylvania try to visit.

We forget that current fantasy art is just the latest installment in a long tradition. Peter Trippi's talk provided background on this movement by looking at fantasy painting in 19th century Britain. As Trippi showed, there was lots of it, much of it first rate. Trippi is the Editor of one of my favorite magazines, Fine Art Connoisseurthat champions the continuing vitality of the realist tradition in painting. He for several years was Director of the Dahesh Museum in NYC. And he is an expert on the work of JW Waterhouse, a late 19th century British painter, and the author of a great book on the same published by Phaidon. Peter showed lots of Waterhouse paintings of King Arthur legends. Counting myself as a major Waterhouse fan, I was in heaven.

Above is one of my favorites, Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott from 1888. It's a painting that should have been corny but instead comes across as genuine and authentic. That's what happens when an artist paints really, really well.

Waterhouse took his subject from the then popular poem by Alfred Tennyson. The Lady dwells in a tower on the island of Shalott, on the river near King Arthur's Camelot. For reasons she doesn't understand she lives under a spell that forces her to spend all her time weaving a magic web of the scenes outside her window. It gets worse- her curse allows her to only look at the world through its image  reflected in a mirror. Otherwise, she dies.  Her undoing comes when she catches sight of the knight Lancelot and overcome by his handsomeness, goes to the window for a better look. This means she is now dying. She goes down the river towards Camelot, singing sad songs of longing as she expires. You gotta love this stuff.

It's quite a story. It seems to ask how closely we should engage with the world, filled with all its passions and dangers. Waterhouse spent a lifetime painting women and water, suggesting the two are mysteriously linked in the back of the mind, as Jungian psychology would tell us. Waterhouse drew that link with a somber elegance.

I want to look at a few of the painter's moves that make this such a powerful painting.

First off, Waterhouse puts the key emphasis on the Lady by reserving for her and her alone the lightest tones in the painting. Her elegant white dress just glows. Everything else is pushed darker. It's only fitting as she had to spent her life weaving her "magic web" tapestry that she's brought in along too, letting it drape over the gunwales and spill into the water. Her tapestry is all golds and oranges. Notice the way Waterhouse knits her together with her tapestry by assigning the same color to the yellow trim on her sleeves and bodice. 

There is a particularly powerful shape in the acute sliver of white dress that plunges over the side of the boat and pushes down into the water. Try an experiment- hold just one finger up to block out only this feature of the composition and see how static the whole thing becomes. Waterhouse just had a sense of when his compositions needed a special injection of visual surprise like that provided by the tapestry.

Look closely at the pose of the figure. The Lady seems ready to meet her fate. She leans subtly forward towards the bow, as if to express her sorrowful acceptance of what happens next. See how the right edge of that lowest triangle of white cloth shares that same subtle lean toward the right. One other touch I just love, the three candles near the bow. The first two stand erect, but the rightmost tilts just a bit forward to the right, echoing that same axis of the woman's pose. It's little things like that that put just a touch more air into this painting's sails.

It's fun to think of how he might have handled the painting differently. Imagine if instead of spilling over into the waters the tapestry had been neatly folded up within the hull. We'd miss all that wonderful abstract geometry of its quilt-like design. The dark brown of the boat's hull would become too simple and predictable a shape. The artist artfully plays off the decorative patterns in the tapestry against the plain and empty wood planks of the boat's hull.

Waterhouse was a master storyteller, but he could also ravish the viewer's eye.  He understood he would also have to tell a magnificent story with his colors and make his shapes dance together to make a rich composition. That way he was sure to get people to stop long enough to take in the literal story about this doomed young woman. 

There are a thousand other design ideas that come together to make this such a masterpiece. Allow me to mention just two more. One is the way the arc of the boat's prow is echoed by a curve of the bunched up reeds leaning the other direction in the lower left foreground. See how he pulls the reeds together with the tapestry by infusing both with a gold ochre color.

And then there's her marvelous hair (yes I confess having a crush on this woman). It billows out in magnificent burnt sienna reds. It's so stated that it could have looked out of place in the painting. So Waterhouse installs into his background a tree on the far shore with a blush of red in its foliage. The whole background is cast in deliciously cool greens and greys. Yet he animates that one reddish tree  almost as if the tree is giving a final wave of sympathy to our doomed heroine. With such moves the painting becomes sensitively knit together and yet so powerful.

I don't know why Waterhouse isn't better known in the U.S., though interest in his work seems to be rising.  Just about all of his work is over in Britain or Australia. Trippi organized a major show of his work several years ago but unfortunately it only came as close to us as Montreal. Maybe one of my zillionaire readers could step up to the plate and underwrite a new Waterhouse exhibition in the U.S. I promise I'll come.

Reminder: you can see Koch's paintings at his new website:


  1. I always learn so much about how to look at art from you. Have my whole life. And, here, you did it again! Beautiful painting. Fascinating post.

  2. Thanks Lousia for your sweet, kind words.
    And yes, isn't it a beautiful painting.


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