John William Waterhouse, The Mystic Wood, c.1910
The mystic wood is a late work by the Italian-born British Royal Academician, John William Waterhouse, dated at c.1910 by Waterhouse's biographer, Dr Anthony Hobson, and at c.1914–17 by Peter Trippi, the author of a 2002 monograph on the artist. While it remained unfinished at the time of his death, the work is in an advanced stage of development and captures much of what was typical of the artist’s style and choice of subject. His manner of working directly onto the canvas and adding broad tonal washes of thinned paint, without ‘squaring-up’ a preparatory drawing, creates a work which remains ‘alive’ despite its incomplete state. This vigorous style contrasted sharply with the Victorian painters of the previous generation such as Alma-Tadema and Frederick Leighton, where a very high degree of ‘finish’ was paramount to their success. Waterhouse’s method is more akin to the plein air naturalism of the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84) and the Cornwall-based Newlyn School, which included Stanhope Forbes (represented in the Queensland Art Gallery Collection by The village industry 1908).
Hobson has defined Waterhouse as a ‘Romantic Classicist’ and argues against his inclusion as a member of the pre-Raphaelite painters such as Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. The most recently mounted retrospective of Waterhouse presented by the Groninger Museum, Amsterdam ‘JW Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Modern Pre-Raphaelite’ (December 2008 – May 2009), is the first major exhibition of the artist’s work since 1978. Its rationale draws on and acknowledges both the pre-Raphaelite fascination with medievalism and the bright palette of Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and Waterhouse’s sympathy with the technical explorations of modern French painting.
Waterhouse’s subjects were consistently drawn from the grand mythological and classical narratives of Homer and Ovid, the literary and poetical works of Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. What distinguishes The mystic wood however is its lack of an obvious historical, literary or classical narrative. A summary of the dress, gesture and age of the figures suggests no definitive story and the appearance of a young boy is rare in Waterhouse’s work. Here he is shown hiding behind the dress of one of two young women accompanied by what appears to be an older woman, a ‘nurse’ perhaps. The two younger women are captivated and engrossed with a white stag which appears to be leading and beckoning them onwards into a forest. In Celtic mythology a white stag is often interpreted as the harbinger of death — that the Otherworld is near. In other myths, both pagan and Christian, the white stag is equated with the unicorn or in Arthurian legend, as a symbol of mankind’s elusive spiritual quest.
While its specific meaning remains unclear, we could assume that the deliberate rendering of the animal in white suggests associations with both purity and death and that within the spiritual iconography of Victorian England, its symbolism would have been more resonant. During the 1900s there was a shift in Waterhouse’s work away from myth and legend towards the interpretation of poetic works, romance and mystery drawn from Chaucer, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Shelly and Dante as well as pictures of imaginative fantasy. The mystic wood appears to lean more in this direction and even within the range of the attributed circa dates, the painting was commenced late in the artist’s life at a time when the popularity of his work had declined considerably. It was produced as Victorian England was transformed into modern Britain — a robust, industrial nation on the eve of World War One.
The previous decade in England, like much of fin de siècle Europe, had been characterised by a resurgence of interest in spiritualism, the occult, mysticism and magic. Such interest has been variously interpreted as a retreat into enchantment in the face of rapid social change or a reaction to the waning influence of conventional religion. Aspects of this merged easily with the Victorian retelling of classical narratives and Waterhouse’s tendency to interpret and present the less obvious aspects of the stories also provided for a more arcane interpretation.
The Order of the Golden Dawn is perhaps the best-known of the spiritual orders in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Established in 1888 by the Freemasons, the order attracted a considerable membership by the 1890s and included physicians, writers, scientists, actors, poets and artists. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, actress and theatre director, Florence Farr and the notorious magician, Alistair Crowley are among the Order’s best known members. Peter Trippi has pointed to Waterhouse’s interest in the occult on the evidence of several works.(1) The scarcity of biographical detail on Waterhouse’s life however, leaves such speculation in the realm of conjecture.
Waterhouse had an ability to define a particular episode from a repertoire of literary, mythical and poetical genres while imbuing the figures, almost always women, with a contemporary presence. The fact that his paintings were animated by women that, while idealised, one might encounter on the high street, appealed to Victorian audiences and buyers.
The mystic wood is indeed a dark and gloomy glade with no hint of celestial light. A lambent reflection from the surface of a stream in the distance is the only vestige of illumination. What may be ancient oaks or elms create a canopy of darkness for what could be a symbolic passage to another realm. According to another revelatory text of the late nineteenth century, first published in 1890 — James G Frazer’s (1854–1941) The Golden Bough — the forest was a primeval metaphor for a return to the beginning. Much of Waterhouse’s work addressed quasi-pagan, pantheist themes where mortals and animals, nymphs, pans and lower deities played out narratives of desire, loss and transformation. This image poses a small mortal boy in the protection of three women — two of which are painted from Waterhouse’s favourite (and still unknown) model — on a threshold of both fear and fascination. The white stag and its attendant symbology, is a central protagonist in the drama. Is it possible to read this mysterious picture as an allegory of the artist’s life? Is it possibly both prescient of an imagined afterlife and a kind of pictorial summary of Waterhouse’s infatuation with fleeting youth and beauty as a melancholy trope?
David Burnett, Artlines, no.1, 2009, pp.34–35.
This is the second article in a series focusing on selected works in the Queensland Art Gallery's international collection.
1 Peter Trippi, JW Waterhouse, Phaidon, London, 2002.