Hylas and the Nymphs
1896 by John William Waterhouse
Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite; Royal Academy of Arts
Considering this painting is exactly the same age as Toulouse-Laurec’s La Toilette, it is interesting, and in some ways astounding, to remember that two different styles were working so independently of one another: the French Impressionists and the English Pre-Raphaelites. The realism has here been replaced by an obsession for absolute beauty, perfectly captured in the faces of these almost identical nymphs dotted – as flowers would be – in the tempting waters. But, despite its lack of Modernist style, Waterhouse’s work is never boring; as the Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy revealed, his painting possesses a magical quality. The works are not simply visual homages to the Pre-Raphaelite ‘red rose lip’ or ‘snow white skin’, but carefully constructed compositions, almost patterns of delicate articulation. There is no doubt that they aim to be beautiful but they are also aesthetically interesting, a theatre of colour and detail dancing before our eyes. The transparency of the water is inviting, the moon-like glow of the nymphs’ skin eerily enticing but unreal, the blues intense and the greens soft; the effect is magical.