Analysis of William Waterhouse’s Various Renditions of the Lady of Shallot



Section 1: The Work and its Historical/Cultural Context

Arguably the most famous piece by painter and drafter John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallot depicts an emotionally evocative scene on an ancient theme: the fabled medieval city of Camelot.  The work’s creation in 1888 was inspired by a poem by the same name which was written in 1832 by Lord Alfred Tennyson. While this masterful illustration of one of the artist’s favorite subjects has been touted by critics, even the casual observer can find meaning in the artistic metaphors employed by Waterhouse in the Lady of Shallot.  This oil painting on canvas depicts with adept, detailed accuracy the theme, tone and events described in Tennyson’s poem.

The poem describes a young woman trapped in a tower, forbidden to glimpse the distant city of Camelot except through a mirror in the tower. There in her room, upon pain of death, a curse holds her captive in her room; she is forbidden to look at the world except through a mirror on the wall across from a window, as she watches the world go by in reflections and shadows. She dreams and longs for love. She watches others living and loving in the reflections, and depicts through woven tapestry what she sees. She glimpses the fabled knight Lancelot in the mirror one day and loves him instantly. She despairs of being apart from the one she adores, and dares to glance away from the reflections and down at the city; she is searching for Lancelot. The mirror in her tower shatters and the curse is fulfilled: The doomed Lady of Shallot begins to die as the lady flees her tower to seek her beloved in Camelot.

The painting depicts a scene of a distressed young , drifting, seeming aimless and forlorn, moving downstream in a wooden vessel. In her hand she holds a chain for the boat’s mooring, which she is just on the point of releasing at the beginning of her journey.

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 Shallot (Tennyson).


On the prow of the boat are a crucifix, three candles, and an engraving with the Lady’s name. Two of the candles have already blown out, symbolizing her life force ebbing away under force of her curse. The crucifix symbolizes her desperate sacrifice. She sits on a tapestry onto which she has woven images of herself on the boat and Lancelot surrounded by other knights.

The poem goes on to describe the Lady’s fateful end. She dies in the autumn storm as she rides to Camelot, where citizens of the city cross themselves in fear. Only Lancelot has the courage to remark on her beauty and beseech God’s grace on her soul.


Section 2: Reactions to the Work

Although the theme of Arthurian legend was popular with his contemporaries, Waterhouse did not actually utilize it until it was no longer popular in Victorian society. It is said that “changes in society caused by World War I made his art unfashionable” (Kerr). The Lady of Shallot and other paintings by Waterhouse inspired rude caricatures and comedic plays in the late 1800’s, which was not an unusual occurrence at the time. The Victorian societal values of strict propriety and proper English-ness found much to ridicule in the whimsical free-floating nymphs of Waterhouse’s paintings. In his obituary, Waterhouse was given little credit for his genius. Critics of the time harshly summarized that, “he painted always like a scholar and a gentleman, though not like a great artist (Ross).” This treatment of great artists was typical in early 1900s, in which the fickle and facetious public tended to elevate newer, more modern and impetuous artists in favor of older, more severe contributors to art. The long-lived accuracy of form and technique espoused by Neo-Classical art ideals of Realism and Romanticism had been pushed aside in favor of the newer styles of Impressionism and Surrealism (Artble). The artist’s obituary even suggested that Waterhouse never found his true calling and that his paintings lacked depth of meaning (Ross).

These disparate sentiments are certainly not shared by the contemporary world of art today. Waterhouse was later, and is still today, recognized as one of the very finest Pre-Raphaelite painters. The height of value for these paintings occurred during the 1970’s with high-profile auctions of Waterhouse’s works at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. More than one art historian commented on the complexity and romanticism of his art, as well as his gift for portraying conflict (Wood, 222). This aspect of reconciliation of opposites is often considered to be the heart of the allure of his artwork. Current critical opinion suggests that through this ingenious combination of poetic fantasy with realism, Waterhouse makes the fantastical seem plausible: a highly attractive concept that he expertly executed.

I found this painting to be an effortless escape into another place and time. Most women, with our romantic hearts and innate lovelorn longings, can easily empathize with the plight of the Lady of Shallot. My artistic nature and fondness for beautiful things found inspiration and fulfillment in Waterhouse’s adept use of color, symbolism, realism and theme. I am perpetually grateful for any artist who, like Waterhouse, possesses such rare vision, capacity for understanding and talent for finding the fundamentally beautiful essence of the human condition.


Section 3: Comparison


Waterhouse captures the essence of Pre-Raphaelite Romanticism through this and other paintings by means of extensive use of “symbolism for added narrative (Artble).” Interestingly, this is found similarly true for other Pre-Raphaelite artists, including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who also used this same poem for inspiration. Waterhouse himself used the same “distressed maiden” theme for many other paintings, which some scholars attribute to the artist’sconcern with female sexuality within Victorian society (Artble).” Two notable examples of this recurring theme featuring the Lady of Shallot herself include another The Lady of Shalott, painted in 1894, and I am Half Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shallot, painted in 1915.

The 1894 Lady of Shallot painting features a brunette version of the same fabled character, stepping from her isolated bower to find Lancelot. Behind the Lady we see a complete ruin of the tapestry she weaves. “Silken balls and worsted strands are littered in her lap and on the floor (Kerr).” This painting depicts the beginning of the Lady’s curse, as she leaves her isolated tower to find the river and boat from the previous painting.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

    She look’d down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

    The Lady of Shalott (Tennyson).


Like the earlier painting, the lady wears virginal white and an expression of despairing intent. Her distress is apparent in both paintings, and an aura of sadness permeates both works. Also in keeping with themes from the previous Lady of Shallot, religious icons are present, with statuettes of the Virgin and Child behind her. We also see again candles and the river to Camelot, true to the story Tennyson tells. There is, likewise, a desperate feeling of urgency to the scene.

In contrast to the 1888 Lady of Shallot, however, this scene is depicted indoors, with only a glimpse of what is to come (in the river) through the mirror behind her. It takes us into the Lady’s

world, with a feeling of escaping from her cramped space as she untangles herself from her loom and the confining web of weaving she has made. Through these details and tone, the painting gives a highly effective sense of the force of emotion which drives the Lady to flee to her boat in search of an open, tangible world and love.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott – J. W. Waterhouse, 1914 (oil on canvas)

I Am Half Sick of Shadows Said the Lady of Shalott describes the sentiments of the Lady in an even earlier glimpse of the storyline. It is here, in the same isolated tower of the previous painting, that she is depicted in an attitude of repose, with only a mild expression of frustration for her circumstances.  The viewer of this piece looks with the Lady onto a scene in the mirror of two lovers floating on the river to Camelot. We see what she sees, and are invited to feel as she feels.

There she weaves by night and day

A magic web with colours gay.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

   To look down to Camelot.

She knows not what the curse may be,

And so she weaveth steadily,

And little other care hath she,

   The Lady of Shalott (Tennyson).

This is the only painting in the series where the Lady appears in a rose-colored dress. Perhaps he used the white dress in the two other paintings to emphasize the desperation of her plight, using her apparent innocence to garner sympathy for the Lady in her suffering. Another interesting detail in the painting is in the mirror behind the lady, where a red poppy appears in the reflection of the mirror only, but not in the foreground next to the lady where the actual poppy should be. This reflection in the mirror might be a foreshadowing of the Lady’s doom, as the traditional symbolism of flowers suggests that the poppy symbolizes eternal sleep, or oblivion.

The red poppy, in particular, symbolizes pleasure. The flower in Waterhouse’s painting suggests that Lady was fully aware of  her imminent demise, as the mirror and its contents were all the she knew of the world, and the medium by which she interpreted everything in it. It further suggests that she was willing to accept this fate and sacrifice everything for the hope of finding love.

One detail that I have not seen a critique or analysis of anywhere is the cord binding the Lady’s legs in the 1915 painting.  I’ve inferred the obvious and literal metaphor from this wardrobe anomaly: the Lady is trapped in her beautiful dress and surroundings. She is bound, unable to escape or even feel free to move around.  All of these symbolic meanings apply intrinsically to the essential theme of the painting and hold true to Pre-Raphaelite themes and methods.

Strangely, the three Lady of Shallot paintings were actually created by Waterhouse in reverse chronological order, with the latest incarnation of the Lady, according to Tennyson’s poem, appearing in his first painting. Similarly, all three employ common themes: love, despair, Camelot, femininity, romance, naiveté, longing, isolation and death. Together, the three paintings bring to life Tennyson’s classical poem with deeply communicative imagery.



The Lady of Shalott – J. W. Waterhouse, 1915 (oil on canvas)

Section 4: Summary

All of the paintings in John Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot series are stunning examples of Pre-Raphaelite love-themed paintings done in a classical style. For this reason, it is important to preserve these paintings and the source of their inspiration, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot, for future generations. The dramatic elements of the fantastic story that Waterhouse illustrates in The Lady of Shallot are universally dynamic, human elements which are entertaining in any period of time. Most notably, the painting also tells a story of the time in which it was made, revealing to subsequent ages the sentiments and interests of those that lived during its age of its creation.

Experts today acknowledge that Waterhouse and other influential Victorian artists were unappreciated in their time (Trippi, 142).  This error in judgment has been corrected repeatedly by contemporary art critics, who recognize Waterhouse as a fundamental founder of an art legacy. By the time of his death in 1917, John William Waterhouse had painted over 200 visually stunning and compelling paintings. He has repeatedly proven his mastery in producing multiple Pre-Raphaelite themes in painting, and provided inspiration for countless artists and art enthusiasts for all time.




Kerr, Julia. “The Lady of Shallot.” The Art and Life of John William Waterhouse. JFK, Dec. 2000. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Mariotti, Meg. “The Lady of Shalott: Pre-Raphaelite Attitudes Toward Women in Society.” The Victorian Web. Brown University, 2004. Web. 13 Oct. 2015. 

Ross, Kara. “John William Waterhouse.” Jan. 2000. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Roth, Mark. “Gifted artist? Bouguereau’s work controversial more than a century after his death.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 21 August 2007. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Tennyson’s Poetry.” SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. “The Lady of Shalott.” Poetry X. Ed. Jough Dempsey. 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Unknown. “John William Waterhouse.”, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Unknown. “The Language of Flowers.” Victorian Bazaar. Victorian Bazaar, 2000. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “The Lady of Shalott (painting).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.











On the form below fill in examples (and page numbers) from your revised essay where you used one or more of the following devices. In other words, I am asking you to explain to me what devices you used and where you used them. You can add to sections if you used a device more than once. Just cut and paste this text into a Word document, then fill it out, and add more space as needed. You will need to use the devices effectively in your essay to receive credit for them. Also, make it as easy as possible for me to see where you have made changes. If you just list changes below but don’t make it easy for me to find them in draft 2, it is less likely that I will be able to spot them. Some students color code changes to make them easier for me to see.


When you submit the revision of your essay, copy and paste this draft 2 form to the end of your draft 2 and submit both (as one document) to “Assignments.” I will read it at the same time that I read/evaluate your draft 2.


Writer’s Voice (chapter 7)


The Rhetorical Situation


What is your topic, your audience, and your purpose in writing this essay (not to fulfill an assignment in ENG 3312!)? Though I am your instructor, and I am reading and evaluating your essay draft, choose another audience to write for.

I chose a high-school level vocabulary for this paper, as this will appeal to the general public. It is geared particularly toward art enthusiasts. The purpose of the paper is to inform this audience of some connections and observations made in multiple paintings by John William Waterhouse and a poem on the same subject by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

(See comments .)



Point of View


Choose the point of view of your essay with care. Point of view illustrates for the reader how the writer views the subject he or she is writing about. Often a writer uses multiple points of view within a written passage, so it is possible that you will use, for example, both first person and third person points of view in draft 2. Be sure to read Kolln and Gray’s discussion of why writers choose one point of view over another (pp. 133-135).


Which point(s) of view have you chosen for your essay—first person, second person, third person? Why did you choose that point of view? Provide examples to show how point of view works in your essay.

I chose 3rd person point-of-view for the majority of the paper, with a few scattered phrases in 1st person.

I have not significantly altered the point-of-view between drafts, except to add a 1st person phrase that included my own original ideas.





Describe the tone that you have chosen to best connect with your audience. You may need more than one adjective to describe it (see pp. 117-119). Be sure to consciously choose the tone you want to project and make choices for draft 2 that reflect those choices. ? Did you make changes in tone for draft 2? If so, what changes did you make and why?

I’ve chose a slightly casual, yet academic tone for this paper. I have not made significant changes in the tone between drafts 1 and 2.





Word choices help to convey the tone of the essay. As Kolln and Gray note, “they are two sides of the same coin. Both are connected to the writing situation as well as to the essential sense of the words” (p. 120).


One of the ways we signal the level of formality/informality of a piece of writing is through verb choices. For example, when we write for informal situations (personal essays, etc.), we may choose to signal that informality through the use of idioms (see p. 125). However, if our writing situation (and target audience) is more formal, we may choose to use more nominalized verbs than we would in a more informal situation (see pp. 126-127). The use of contractions in writing can aid in producing certain sentence rhythms and in establishing a “more conversational, less formal” writer’s voice (Kolln and Gray, p. 128). Also, they point out that contractions lessen the distance between the writer and reader.


Metaphors can also be used to bring writers and their readers closer together. By the way, don’t just add them to be showy. Make sure you know why you are using them. You will need to show me that you have made some conscious changes in the diction of your essay between draft 1 and draft 2, not just that you have listed what was previously a part of draft 1.


What words have you chosen that support the tone you want to project in the essay? In listing word choice changes, also list changes in verb idioms or nominalizations.


Have you used any new metaphors to strengthen the connections between you and reader(s)?


What changes have you made in using contractions in draft 2, if any, and why did you make them?


I did not include contractions in this paper, as I wanted to give it a general academic aspect. Although the content discussed in the paper is constructed on a personally-formed premise, I wanted to show that the ideas contained here were well-supported by research into ideas of art experts and historians. I did, however, try to use a variety of sentence structures (simple and compound) and relatively simple language to lend a degree of readability and simplicity.

The painting discussed here is full of metaphors, and I did not use metaphors to illustrate my own ideas, but rather discussed the many metaphors observed and discussed by art experts on the work.





Writers use metadiscourse signals in two primary ways: (1) to connect ideas and (2) to provide the reader with clues about the writer’s voice. (pp. 130-132). The metadiscourse signals that are used to connect ideas are the same conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases noted in ch. 4 (pp. 62-64). A second kind of metadiscourse signals can be used to send readers clues about what the writer’s attitude is toward the topic and about how the text should be read (pp. 131-132). How and where did you use these metadiscourse signals in draft 2: conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases? How and where did you use metadiscourse signals in draft 2 to signal your attitude toward the topic or to guide the reading of the essay? (As I have mentioned before, I’m interested only in revisions for draft 2, not in places you used the metadiscourse signals in draft 1.)


I’ve added a couple of transitional adverbs to add cohesion to the paper by connecting each idea with the one before it.



Cohesion (chapter 5)


Show me new examples in draft 2 in which you have repeated key words and phrases effectively, strengthened your use of the known/new contract, and added parallel elements (pp. 85-99).


Repetition of Key Words and Phrases: The words “Love,” “Symbol,” and “Camelot” are central to the artwork and poem, and are repeated throughout. I’ve added a few other repetitions of these key ideas, as well, for emphasis.


The Known-New Contract: I have-reworded passages in the new draft to better utilize the known-new contract.


Parallelism: I did not find it useful to employ this device in a new way in the new draft, as the paper is largely informative, and not poetic, in nature.



Sentence Rhythm (chapter 6)


Show me new examples in draft 2 that illustrate your growing understanding of how writers can control their use of sentence rhythm. I should point out that if you use any technique too often, it loses its effectiveness. For example, adding ten cleft sentences to your draft 2 certainly shows me that you can use the technique; however, the sheer number of them serves to lessen their impact.


End Focus (pp.102-104):

There are already a few examples of “end-focus” being effectively implemented in the essay. I did not deem it necessary to add more or remove any at this time.


It-Cleft (pp. 105-106):

I added an “it-cleft” (for a total of 2 in the essay) to give overall improvement to a particular supporting statement.


What-Cleft (p. 107):

I have not found it useful to add any “what-clefts” to this essay in this draft.


There-Transformation (pp. 107-108):

I borrowed this device to add emphasis to a central theme.


Commas that Shift the Peak of Stress (pp. 109-110):

I added two commas and one semicolon to make key ideas/themes stand out in the sentence.


Power Words (pp. 111-115):

There are already several power words in the original draft, but I added a couple more of them to give the composition more interest in the 2nd draft.


4 thoughts on “Analysis of William Waterhouse’s Various Renditions of the Lady of Shallot

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