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John William Waterhouse

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Magic paintings… Or better, paintings with a magical atmosphere… Atmosphere that can enliven and transport the viewer to another… Atmosphere that can awaken all the senses, even those that are well hidden… By looking at a painting, you can tell if it is magical. You hear the rustling of the leaves, the water, you smell the soil, the flowers, the trees, and you feel a gentle breeze touching your cheek… And you know that the painting is ‘alive’… Mysterious… Magical…

One of the most important creators of magic paintings lived between 1849-1916 in England. His name: John William Waterhouse.

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Waterhouse himself maintained that he did not belong to any artistic movement of his time, although many classify it as Pre-Raphaelite because of his subject matter and the atmosphere he used. He was one of the few painters who became rich and famous during their lifetime from their art. His subjects were mythological, historical or literary. Some of his well-known works included in these themes are the well-known myth of Apollo and Daphne (Apollo and Daphne), Miranda from Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ (Miranda – The Tempest), Lady of Shalot (Lady of Shalott) from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name, and of course his well-known depictions of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. (Ophelia 1889, Ophelia 1910, Ophelia 1894).

But Waterhouse’s main subject, which for some reason haunted him, was the femme fatale, the female midwife, the witch, a beautiful, seductive but extremely dangerous woman.

Waterhouse did not hesitate at all to give his femmes fatales their due power. In front of them, the men were weak, unable to react. These women had power over all living things and this is evident in their depictions.

Waterhouse’s femmes fatales include well-known forms of dangerous females: Circe (Circe Invidiosa, Circe The Sorceress), Medea (Jason and Medea), Pandora (Pandora), as well as mythical creatures such as nymphs (Hylas and the Nymphs ), mermaids (Mermaid), Sirens (The Siren), Naiads (A Naiad), lamias (Lamia 1905, Lamia 1909).

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In all of the above paintings, Waterhouse glorifies the dangerous, powerful female, attributing to her absolute power, which 19th century society considered unacceptable.

Much has been made of the artist’s psychotic tendency to paint almost exclusively femmes fatales from one period of his life onwards. Some say he found the ideal woman in his godmothers. Others that he admired them because of his homosexual tendencies which he suppressed because of his closed social circle. My point is that his admiration goes much deeper. Waterhouse was one of the most powerful members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn of his time. The sorcerers of the secret orders of the 19th century worshiped the feminine and attributed extraordinary powers to her as the Mother of All. Waterhouse created perhaps the most characteristic witch in Art: in the painting The Magic Circle, the witch makes her magic circle of protection with her wand, while in her other hand she holds the scythe with which she cuts her magic herbs, which has already passed in her zone. Around her neck she wears the uroboros, a powerful ancient Greek magical symbol of the witch that symbolizes the primordial concept of the continuum. In front of her, she boils a cauldron with her potions, from which imaginary forms emerge, which the witch, in her magical trance, tries to read.

It is more likely that Waterhouse so admired and envied the innate magical powers that Nature herself gave to woman that he pursued him in some way, going so far as to express his awe, his anger, his desire to reach the feminine through his paintings. Perhaps the males who were always portrayed as the victims of his femmes fatales were versions of himself.

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In his work ‘Circe Offers the Potion to Odysseus’, which potion had the magical power to ‘transform’, Odysseus is reflected in the large mirror behind Circe. The face of Odysseus is a self-portrait of the painter himself. The artist stands scared and full of awe in front of the powerful female, ready to take the glass she offers him, and transform into something else… In the corresponding male of Circe? Or in the very concept of the feminine…?

After his death, the artist’s wife burned all his diaries, leaving no trace of his true thoughts… The conclusion is yours…

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