The Lady of Shalott (painting)

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The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott - Google Art Project edit.jpg
Artist John William Waterhouse
Year 1888
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 183 cm × 230 cm (72 in × 91 in)
Location Tate Britain, London

The Lady of Shalott is a painting of 1888 by the English painter John William Waterhouse. It is a representation of the ending of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's 1832 poem of the same name.[1] Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888, 1894 and 1915. It is one of his most famous works, which adopted much of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, though Waterhouse was painting several decades after the Brotherhood split up during his early childhood.

The Lady of Shalott was donated to the public by Sir Henry Tate in 1894, and is usually on display in Tate Britain, London, in room 1840.


The Lady of Shalott is one of John William Waterhouse's most famous works, an 1888 oil-on-canvas painting of a scene from Tennyson's poem in which the poet describes the plight of a young woman, loosely based on the figure of Elaine of Astolat from medieval Arthurian legend,[2] who yearned with an unrequited love for the knight Sir Lancelot, isolated under an undisclosed curse in a tower near King Arthur's Camelot. Waterhouse painted three different versions of this character, in 1888,[1] 1894[3] and 1915.[4]

I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1915
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894
Leeds City Art Gallery

The painting has the precisely painted detail and bright colours associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. The Lady of Shalott pictures the Lady, who is the main character in Tennyson's poem, also titled The Lady of Shalott (1842), who is facing her destiny. The Lady has made her way to this small boat with a few of her belongings. She had been confined to her quarters, not allowed to go outside or even look outdoors. "A curse is on her if she stay", wrote Tennyson. In the poem, a curse had been put on the Lady, but she defies the rules of the curse to see if she could live outside of her confinement. This is the moment that is pictured in Waterhouse's painting, as the Lady is leaving to face her destiny. She is pictured sitting on a tapestry, which showcases Waterhouse’s strong attention to detail.

The Lady has a lantern at the front of her boat; in the poem by Tennyson and reflected in Waterhouse's image it will soon be dark. Also, with a closer look, we can see a crucifix positioned near the front of the bow, and the Lady is gazing right over it. Next to the crucifix are three candles. Candles were a representation of life – two of the candles are already blown out, signifying that her death is soon to come. Aside from the metaphoric details, this painting is valued for Waterhouse's realistic painting abilities. Her dress is stark white against the much darker hues of the background. Waterhouse's close attention to detail and colour, accentuation of the beauty of nature, realist quality, and his interpretation of a vulnerable, yearning woman are further representative of his artistic skill.

The Lady of Shalott was donated to the public by Sir Henry Tate in 1894.[1]

Tennyson's poem

According to Tennyson's version of the legend, the Lady of Shalott was forbidden to look directly at reality or the outside world; instead she was doomed to view the world through a mirror, and weave what she saw into tapestry. Her despair was heightened when she saw loving couples entwined in the far distance, and she spent her days and nights aching for a return to normalcy. One day the Lady saw Sir Lancelot passing on his way in the reflection of the mirror, and dared to look out at Camelot, bringing about a curse. The lady escaped by boat during an autumn storm, inscribing 'The Lady of Shalott' on the prow. As she sailed towards Camelot and certain death, she sang a lament. Her frozen body was found shortly afterwards by the knights and ladies of Camelot, one of whom is Lancelot, who prayed to God to have mercy on her soul.

From part IV of Tennyson's poem:

And down the river's dim expanse

Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.[5]

Tennyson also reworked the story in Elaine, part of his Arthurian epic Idylls of the King, published in 1859, though in this version the Lady is rowed by a retainer in her final voyage.[6]

Other versions

Tennyson's verse was popular with many of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, and was illustrated by such artists as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Maw Egley, and William Holman Hunt.[7] Throughout his career, Waterhouse was preoccupied with the poetry of both Tennyson and John Keats.[1] Between 1886 and 1915 Waterhouse painted three episodes from the poem, as well as La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893) from the poem by John Keats.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "The Lady of Shalott 1888". Tate Gallery webpage and display caption, Retrieved on 7 December 2013.
  2. ^ Potwin, L.S. (December 1902). "The Source of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott". Modern Language Notes. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 17, No. 8. 17 (8): 237–239. doi:10.2307/2917812. JSTOR 2917812.
  3. ^ Retrieved on 7 December 2013.
  4. ^ I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott page at Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Retrieved on 7 December 2013.
  5. ^ Riggs, Terry. "The Lady of Shalott, 1888". Tate Exhibition Catalog, February 1998. Retrieved 12 October 2007.
  6. ^ Poulson, 189
  7. ^ Stein, Richard L., "The Pre-Raphaelite Tennyson", Victorian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Spring, 1981) , pp. 278-301, Indiana University Press, JSTOR; Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, “The Moxon Tennyson as Textual Event: 1857, Wood Engraving, and Visual Culture”; "Pre-Raphaelitism in Poetry", by George P. Landow, Victorian Web


  • Casteras, Susan. The Victorians: British Painting, 1837-1901. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1997.
  • Poulson, Christine, The Quest for the Grail: Arthurian Legend in British Art, 1840-1920, 1999, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0719055377, 9780719055379, google books

External links

  • Waterhouse at Tate Britain
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