Waterhouse created a distinctive type of female beauty which dominates his work, and he was fascinated by myths of the enchantress. His favourite device was to create psychological tension between a single figure and a group.
Waterhouse is the best known of the artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes popularised by the Pre-Raphaelites, though he was not Pre-Raphaelite in technique. His fondness for backgrounds conceived as blocks of colour and tone, as well as the broad, chunky brushwork of his draperies and accessories, ultimately derive from such European prototypes as Jules Bastien-Lepage. This style was transmitted to Waterhouse through his acquaintance with members of the Newlyn school.
Waterhouse drew all the themes of his later work from literature and Greek mythology. The style he had evolved remained unchanged, although after 1900 his handling became slightly looser and his colour lighter and brighter.
From the 1890s Waterhouse annually exhibited one multi-figured painting at the Royal Academy and single-figure paintings at the Academy or the New Gallery. He was elected ARA in 1885 and RA in 1895. Waterhouse's works were well received until the early 20th century when his style had become outdated.
Victorian Olympians (exh. cat., ed. R. Free; Sydney, A.G. NSW, 1975)
John William Waterhouse, RA, 1849–1917 (exh. cat., ed. A. Hobson; Sheffield, Mappin A.G., 1978)
A. Hobson: The Art and Life of J. W. Waterhouse, RA, 1849–1917 (London, 1980) [fully illus.; incl. cat. of works]
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