Bad Romance- J.W. Waterhouse
Here's a troubled relationship for you- The Siren by J.W. Waterhouse (British 1849-1917). Hopelessly ensnared by her music, our smitten young man in the water will die upon the rocks without reaching the maiden who sings out to him. In Waterhouse's version she's mostly human, but tell tale fish scales on her lower legs give notice that something's not quite right here.Think that's bad- here's Waterhouse's Apollo and Daphne. According to the myth Apollo has ticked off the god Eros who shoots a golden arrow into Apollo's heart causing him to fall head over heals for Daphne. And into Daphne goes Eros' leaden arrow, cursing her to forever fear and loathe Apollo. Waterhouse shows us the famous final scene for these two. After a long pursuit Apollo finally catches up to Daphne. In horror poor Daphne implores he father to save her from her pursuer. Dad takes pity and as desperate Apollo's hand reaches her, her skin turns to bark and her arms to tree limbs. She ends up a bay laurel tree. Apollo to his credit remains and lovingly cares for the tree.Phew...
I find these paintings visually striking. Both richly complex, they each employ a very similar tonal system to move your eye through Waterhouse's maze. Look at them both up side down to help us see past what he's painted to look more at how he painted.
Pushing the big majority of his painting's surfaces dark, Waterhouse spotlights his figures' light colored skin. He's telling us where he wants us to look first. So often in group figure paintings that work well, like these, someone is physically touching their neighbor to make a visual connection for the viewer.Upside down, these light passages look like roadmaps, guiding your eye to sweep across all the little details and take in the whole composition in a few bold strokes. I particularly love the zig zag path of light colored legs and arms in The Siren.Maybe the real accomplishment of a painter like Waterhouse is he's able to tell us so much about these worlds he's painting (like the attention he lavishes on individual leaves in Apollo and Daphne) but also wraps the whole composition up in a few bold movements.