“it was Ovid’s Metamorphoses to which he [Waterhouse] returned in every phase of his career, celebrating physical transformations as emblems of the passage from suffering to acceptance, from death to eternal life” (Peter Trippi, from his book J. W. Waterhouse)
John William Waterhouse is perhaps best known for his paintings of women, particularly in Classical and Medieval settings, retelling classic tales. He often retold stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Ancient Roman Epic about magical physical changes. Ovid’s stories tend to focus on the chaos in the transformations, the fragility of life and the status quo of anyone’s experience, and the randomness of suffering.
One of the hundreds of short tales winding throughout the Metamorphoses is that of “Boreas and Orithyia”. Ovid’s telling of this tale, most likely Waterhouse’s source material, corresponds to the purpose: it is a short transition piece to tie the previous story to the next section, in order to retain his goal of all the smaller stories in his work being connected. Ovid tells the thread matter-of-factly; Boreas, the North Wind, desires to marry the mortal Orithyia, but her father, having a grudge against Northerners (which is how it connects to the previous story, in which a Northerner harms Orithyia’s father’s family), forbids it. Boreas resorts to his customary violence and carries Orithyia off; he forces her to become his wife, and their children (who have wings—the Boreads) join Jason and the Argonauts, tying into the next part of the saga.
Orithyia is never focused on for herself. It is a highly technical story.
But now’s where we get to the actual painting: Waterhouse retells the story, painting a girl being buffeted by the wind. It is not strictly identifiable with the original tale at all, and the only reason we know what Waterhouse is retelling is by the title, Boreas.
It is a completely different composition than Ovid’s, and certainly different from many of the other artistic retellings of the story, all of which depict the moment of abduction. No, Waterhouse’s take is so different as to be unrecognizable from the original plot—not only a different take, I would say, but a radical one.
John William Waterhouse is not usually someone tagged with that appellation, “radical”. To many he is a stuffy old Victorian Gentleman, who, beginning with his own lifetime, often found himself out of fashion and certainly is today. Recently, his painting Hylas and the Nymphs was temporarily taken down to invite museum-goers to participate in a discussion on the portrayal of women’s bodies in art, a good illustration of the negative way some people perceive his portrayals of women—as erotic objects to be looked at.
At first glance, Waterhouse’s painting seems completely in-step with his time. Women in the Victorian Era had limited rights and were idealized, especially idealized for being the center of the home and sexually pure. Women were expected to be modest, and were not encouraged to act in the outside world.
The girl in Waterhouse’s painting is similarly modestly clad; she is beautiful and feminine, she is highly idealized. It is easy to look at this—and many of Waterhouse’s paintings—and write them off as highly aesthetic erotic portraits of the female body unrealistic to the full experience of being a woman. It is easy to look at him and his work and feel no connection between the idealized, Victorian females he portrays and the real woman you might be or know.
But remember how I called him radical?
(tune in next time for the second part of this post!)