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John William Waterhouse - A Mermaid

by Sarah Baur

Like his Pre-Raphaelite predecessors, the English painter John William Waterhouse often found inspiration for his works of art in literature and poetry. This is also the case with A Mermaid from 1900, which is often associated with Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Mermaid from 1830:

"Who would be

A mermaid fair,

Singing alone,

Combing her hair


I would be a mermaid fair;

I would sing to myself the whole of the day;

With a comb of pearl I would comb my hair;

And still as I comb'd I would sing and say,

'Who is it loves me? who loves not me?'"

In the painting, these verses are partially reflected. A mermaid - recognisable by her shimmering fish tail - sits on a beach full of pebbles and seaweed-covered rocks. With her body sideways to the viewer, she combs her long red-brown hair. While doing so, she gazes into the distance, lost in thought, with her mouth slightly open in song, past the viewer, while behind her imposing rocks rise from the deep blue sea. In front of the mermaid's knees is a large shiny shell as a bowl from which several strings of pearls hang.

The work was Waterhouse's diploma thesis, which he submitted after his admission to the Royal Academy as an academic. In it, he clearly expressed the melancholy that was already attached to the fate of mermaids by the Victorians: namely, their longing for human love. Not only Tennyson's A Mermaid but also Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid from 1837 evoked this tragedy. At the same time, however, it should not be forgotten that fascinating sea creatures were also attributed deadly qualities. Even though Waterhouse depicted his mermaid as isolated and vulnerable in the bay surrounded by rocks, he subliminally suggests the idea of seductive sirens, whose songs were the undoing of sailors in some stories. The pearls are also supposed to point to this, as they were created in popular belief from the tears of deceased seafarers.

The Art Journal commented in 1901 after the first exhibition of the painting:

"But the conception is charged with romance, the line with rhythm. The wistful-sad look of this fair mermaid, seated in her rock-bound home [...]. It tells of human longings never to be satisfied...The chill of the sea lies ever on her heart; the endless murmur of waters is a poor substitute for the sound of human voices; never can this beautiful creature, troubled with emotion, experience on the one hand unawakened repose, on the other the joys of womanhood."

With his mermaid, Waterhouse created a work of timeless quality whose melancholic depth seduces the viewer to dive in and let his thoughts drift.

John William Waterhouse - A Mermaid

1900, 98 x 67 cm, oil on canvas, Royal Academy of Arts, London


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