1900 by John William Waterhouse
Royal Academy of Arts
The Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with mythical characters makes it no surprise that Waterhouse was drawn in by the fantastical mermaid, though this painting has no particular myth or story surrounding it, unlike postcard fifteen – Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs. Mermaids hardly need elaboration by a narrative, so surrounded are they by imaginative intrigue and various seaman’s tales. Waterhouse sets his characters alight with fantasy, illuminating them magically as beings from another world. The mermaid has the same milky, glowing skin as the nymphs in postcard fifteen; both sit surrounded by water, Waterhouse’s imagined reflections making the light dance euphorically. The light plays, as if rippling, shown through Waterhouse’s Titian-like telling of the tones and textures of the flesh. This rippling of light is carried down across the mermaid’s body, catching on the glittering and silvery scales that cling, then cascade down from the waist. The highlights and curve of the tail are magnificent; we can almost feel the cool slippery surface as it emerges from warm skin, as Waterhouse contrasts the two textures of flesh. Colour is magical too; the perfect turquoise of the sea beckons, bright at the surface and deeply indigo in the depths. The warmth of skin is carried by the auburn glow of the mermaid’s hair; intense, juxtaposing water with fire, it drapes down her back falling gently on the coolness of scales.