The Lady of Shalott is a 1.5m x 2m oil on canvas painting, created in 1888 by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. The Romantic piece is based on Elaine of Astolat from Arthurian Legend, which inspired a great deal of Waterhouse’s work. The painting is one of three created by the artist in response to Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem, The Lady of Shalott. Waterhouse has chosen to depict the end of the poem, where the Lady of Shalott sails away to die, singing her lament.
The lady in the image is Elaine of Asolat, in Arthurian Legend she was madly in love with Sir Lancelot, who in turn was besotted with Guinevere. This unrequited love caused her to die of a broken heart. However, in Tennyson’s poem, she is a magical being who lives in a tower on an island upstream from Camelot. She is forbidden to look at the outside world and it cursed to look at it through a mirror, and weave what she sees into tapestry- which is seen in the boat with her. When Sir Lancelot rides by she is so taken by his gallant charm that she looks out of the window, shattering her mirror and beginning her curse. She writes her name on a boat and floats downstream to Camelot singing her death song before freezing.
The choice of subject is typical of Pre-Raphaelite works as the artists were drawn to the tragic story of unrequited love, and the romanticised medieval era. The wild, rural landscape is part of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, they wanted to create more traditional, natural art in comparison to their contemporaries during the industrial revolution, in a way their art is a form of escapism. The vulnerable maiden is also typical of Pre-Raphaelite work, and reflects Victorian views on women in society- their place was in the home as they were weaker and gentler than men.
The dark autumnal tones in the painting signify the end of her life and contrast with the purity of her dress. It also seems to be dusk, another nod to her fate. The white of her dress contrasts with the bleak hues in the background making her seem isolated and lonely, as she was in her tower. It could also symbolise innocence and hope; she wishes to see Camelot and Sir Lancelot, however the curse causes her to die, preserving her innocence and maidenhood. Virginal women were idolised in Victorian society as they embodied religion and purity, by choosing to portray the Lady in such a way, Waterhouse has effectively sexualised her character.
The painting is significant to the Victorian era and Pre-Raphaelite movement as it exhibits the social and cultural views towards women at the time. Although one could argue that society was matriarchal at the time (Queen Victoria was on the throne), women were seen as house wives and mothers, trapped in their houses, as Elaine of Asolat was in her isolated tower.