John William Waterhouse (British, 1917)


Waterhouse, or Nino as he was known throughout his life, was one of Britain’s foremost Victorian painters of classical, historical and literary subjects. He took his initial artistic instruction from his father before joining the Royal Academy Schools in 1870. His early works were of classical themes in the spirit of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema and Frederick Leighton. In 1874, at the age of twenty five, Waterhouse submitted the classical allegory Sleep and His Half Brother Death to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Thereafter he exhibited at the RA almost every year until his death in 1917

Although Waterhouse painted primarily in oils, he was elected to the Royal institute of painters in watercolour in 1883, resigning in 1889. In 1885 Waterhouse was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and a full member in 1895. The majority of his paintings depict themes from literature and mythology, with women being the primary focus of his attentions. Indeed, in the decade that he painted Gossip he also produced works such as Cleopatra, Consulting the Oracle, Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod and The Lady of Shallott, all of which focus on the beauty and grace of the female

It was in the second half of the 1880’s that Waterhouse’s most intense interest in landscape and outdoor genre subjects manifested itself. He came to appreciate the work of Jean Bastien Lepage, as is evident from his pure landscapes and figure studies made in the course of painting expeditions in the English countryside and Italy. Gossip has been painted with an Impressionistic feeling for the feeling of outdoor light and close parallels can be drawn between this painting and Lepage’s most famous painting Jeanne d’Arc Ecoutant les Voix. Similarities lie, in particular, in the depiction of the trees and other foliage and the crumbling stone of the wall. Gossip stands alone in Waterhouse’s oeuvre for its distinct impressionist style and light hearted subject matter

Waterhouse’s interest in plein-air painting was overshadowed in his later career, with the idealism of the nymphs and sorceresses that increasingly dominated his work from the 1890s onwards. But, the early works of Waterhouse bear comparison with the best of the Newlyn painters. By viewing Waterhouse as an artist connected to the ideals of the Newlyn School, rather than as a follower of Burne Jones and Leigton, it is clear that the aims of his early work were innovative, modern and progressive and that he was striving towards a realism that was overtaken in later years by a quest for idealized beauty