This is one of my favourite paintings from one of my favourite artists. It was painted by John William Waterhouse in 1888 and illustrates the lines from part IV of Tennyson’s 1842 poem, also entitled The Lady of Shalott:
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.
The Lady of Shalott was tempted out of her isolation upon seeing Lancelot’s reflection in her mirror: “Seeing all his own mischance -/ With glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot.” However, the undisclosed curse placed upon her, causes her to die before reaching her one true love.
Her pale face is full of despair and anguish. The dark, unkempt and naturalistic background only serves to heighten this distress. Her eyes are fixed on the crucifix and candles, a symbol of her impending death. Her unruly hair implies she has lost control over herself. Her loneliness is heightened by the stillness of the external environment. By freeing herself from imprisonment [note the chains in her hand] and ‘letting herself go’, she seals her fate.
I have loved this painting ever since I saw it at the age of 12 due to its sheer beauty and realism. Since then, my love for it has continued to grow, despite its sorrowful, fatalistic theme.