Wednesday, May 23


John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
St. Cecilia, 1895

I am tremendously fond of the colorful, historicizing works of J.W. Waterhouse, one of those painters like Edmund Blair Leighton that handled detailed medieval and romantic subjects with a trained academic eye towards the end of the 19th century, and now becoming oddly ubiquitous on college dorm-room posters. Like Bougereau (another favorite of mine), they sometimes skate dangerously close to dewy sentimentalism or the uncomfortable sensualist wish-fulfilment of Rosetti, but they frequently display considerably technique, a remarkable fusion of realistic detail and vivid color, and at their occasional best they have a good bit of both the vivacity of Sargent fused with the spirit of Burne-Jones. In particular, Waterhouse's painting of St. Cecilia is a tour-de-force mixing medieval stylization, impeccable 19th century realistic draftsmanship, an almost Flemish sense of detail, and the bright colors of the early Renaissance. Most of the composition is probably chosen for visual effect, but the numerous details of the landscape would have provided a feast of iconographic possibilities for Jan van Eyck, Botticelli or his brethren.

What is to be lamented in such works is a lack of subject matter that is not merely decorative. St. Cecilia is first ornamental and then only distantly ecclesiastical, in that it illustrates not a scene of the saint at prayer but a romantic snippet from a Tennyson poem. (Not much would be required to fix it but a few changes of pose, and the substitution of a prie-dieu for the saint's rather remarkable little throne!) Like the earlier Pre-Raphaelites, Waterhouse and co. attempt the revival of medieval charm without medieval religion. While I have a great admirer of the chivalric and mythological works that predominated in the world of the late-19th-century salon, such marvelous fusions of technique ought to find their higher fulfilment in the world of the liturgical.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
The Missal, 1902

In such a world, the wonderful little ships, the fountain, the flowers, and the Italianate towers and the saint herself would all be imbued with a deeper justification, symbolic meaning and submitted to an overarching logic which in this incarnation they appear to lack. For instance, had the The Missal been painted for an explicitly Catholic purpose, it might have been a young saint or the Madonna at prayer, and the cloister beyond seen as the enclosed garden of Mary, or at her elbow the extinguished candlestick of the Annunciation. The elements are all there, but just require something more to breathe meaning into them. One can almost imagine it as the outer door of a triptych, with the missing Gabriel on the opposite wing.

However, this does not mean we can't learn from such experiments ourselves. In fact, with all this evident beauty crying out to be utilized, it almost demands it. Perhaps we can now raise their artistic struggles to a higher level by Christianizing the inherent and definite beauty of what was before merely decorative.

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