Bringing to Life the Despondent Lady

Paintings have a powerful way of bringing characters to life, providing an image of their struggle. John William Waterhouse knew this better than anyone. His paintings of “The Lady of Shalott” give an excellent visual of the hopeless centerpiece of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem. Waterhouse drew inspiration from Tennyson’s works throughout his lifetime and his paintings have played a major role in preserving the legacy of “The Lady of Shalott”. Waterhouse crafted three paintings of the Lady of Shallot that garnered much notoriety at the turn of the century in England.

 The first and most famous of these paintings was simply entitled The Lady of Shalott which he completed in 1888. The Lady of Shalott depicts the lady in a deep state of despair and misery as she floats down the river to her eventual death. His painting captures Tennyson’s words in Part 4 of the drama, “And down the river’s dim expanse/Like some bold seer in a trance” (Part 4, Line 126). The lady is depicted “robed in snowy white” just as the poem describes her (Part 4, Line 136).  Waterhouse uses symbolism and vivid detail to create a full character. Accompanying the lady on the boat is a crucifix and three candles that are all extinguished except for one, giving the imagery of a funeral. Waterhouse’s painting is the best visual for the distraught Lady of Shalott.

Another one of Waterhouse’s paintings is entitled “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott. This piece shows the lady with her hands over her head in distress as she ponders the misery of her situation. The title of the poem is taken from Part 2 when the lady witnesses two young lovers and expresses her grief. Waterhouse finished the painting two years before his death in 1915. The painting portrays the two lovers outside the window and the lady in the midst of her work on the tapestry.

By gifting the world with his fascinating images of “The Lady of Shalott” John William Waterhouse helped sustain the legacy of Tennyson’s poem. He utilized his gifted artistry to bring to life a mysterious lady that had arrived at the edge of her grief and could no longer continue living. Through his striking depictions of the lady’s despondence Waterhouse was able to supplement Tennyson’s masterful poetry. A great deal of gratitude is due the man who helped sustain the legacy of this magnificent piece of Victorian literature.

 Waterhouse, “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, 1915.

Nelson, Elizabeth. “Pictorial Interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott”: The Lady in her Boat.” The Victorian Web. Ed. George P. Landow. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2004.

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, “The Lady of Shalott” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 1183-1184. Print.


Waterhouse,  “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott, 1915.

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