The painters of the pre-raphaelite period often took inspiration from religion, theatre, and literature, depicting powerful and tragic tales in rich detail.
The Lady Of Shalott, painted by John William Waterhouse in 1888, depicts the tragic events from Alfred Tennyson’s poem the same name. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1832, describes the plight of a woman who is confined in a tower and cursed, and whose desperate attempt to escape seals her eventual fate;
With a steady stony glance–
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance–
She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
According to the poem, the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned on the island of Shalott, and is allowed to see the outside world only through its reflection in a mirror. She is doomed to spend her days weaving these reflected observations into a tapestry.
Harbouring unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, The Lady one day catches a glimpse of him in her mirror, and cannot resist glancing at him directly. A curse is instantly placed upon her!
In Waterhouse’s richly detailed painting, our heroine is depicted in her final moments, having defied the terms of her imprisonment, and attempting to flee via the river. Appearing in trance-like state (with a ‘glassy countenance’, as described by Tennyson), there is a sense of quiet desperation in her expression.
The chain symbolises her oppression and incarceration – as The Lady of Shallot loosens it, she seals her fate.
Draped over the boat is a tapestry, representing the tapestry woven by The Lady during her imprisonment, depicting scenes relevant to Tennyson’s text.
On the end of the boat are three candles, which symbolise life. Two of the candles are extinguished, signifying that death is soon to come. Alongside these are a crucifix and rosary: funerary symbols, which represent sacrifice and martyrdom.
Look closely and spot a single fallen leaf, resting delicately on The Lady’s lap. Her life is over; she is the fallen leaf – and a fallen woman.
Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate
December 14th, 2018 to April 28th, 2019
National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Pl E, Parkes
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
For more information and tickets, click here.