Analysis of John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott” (1888)
The most famous illustration of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott and arguably the most famous work of the prolific John William Waterhouse is his 1888 oil painting portraying lines from Part IV, Stanza II of the poem:
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The Lady is shown holding the chain in her right hand. Although it can be rather blurry, further to the right, the viewer can see on the prow of the boat an illustration of the poem’s previous stanza when she scratches the words “The Lady of Shalott” into the wood.
Inside the boat itself there is a large and detailed tapestry which appears to be what the Lady was doomed to weave until she became cursed by falling in love with Lancelot. Waterhouse took some license here because, in Part III, Stanza V, it is stated that the Lady’s loom as well as her tapestry or “web” were supernaturally removed from the tower in which she was confined at the moment she was cursed. However, this is such a lovely touch that I doubt anyone will ever complain.
Only two pictures on the tapestry can clearly be seen: The one on the right shows three knights, one of whom is riding a white horse. The picture on the left shows a castle, particularly focusing on one tower, with a longhaired woman standing outside of it. As there is no mention earlier in the poem of a woman by herself, most likely this image is meant to portray a secret desire of the Lady, namely to be outside of where she is imprisoned. Whether or not this is the case, there also appears to be a small boat behind the woman – which seems to have a rather ominous and prophetic meaning.
On the left hand side of the painting, steps can be seen leading down from a large stone building to the river where she is seated in the boat. Obviously this was meant to portray how the Lady exited the dwelling she had inhabited for no one knows how many years.
In the prow of the boat, there is a crucifix with a rosary draped over the corpus. Many art critics feel that the tilt of the Lady’s head shows that she is directing her gaze away from the crucifix. Look closer, however, at this part of the painting:
Not only are her eyeballs directed downward – and not above and away from the cross – but her mouth appears to be slightly opened and her head is at a perfect angle for her to be blowing out the only one of the three candles which has remained lit. It is rather odd that the two extinguished candles are of the same length, while the soon to be blown out candle is higher. However, the number three seems to signify birth, life, and death – death being the candle which the Lady is in the process of extinguishing.
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