by Alexandra Tuschka
A man bends down to the girls in the water, who all look at him curiously and with wide eyes. Their bodies are covered up to the breasts. The viewer can nevertheless make out the silhouette of the bodies of some of them through the surface of the water. They seem to come from all sides to seduce the young man: from the left a girl rushes; at the edges of the picture they wade into the picture; in front a repoussoir figure leads into the action. The water is covered with water lilies, at the edges of the picture reeds protrude into the painting ground.
Waterhouse here illustrates the story of Hylas and the nymphs. This ancient mythological tale relates that Hylas accompanied Hercules on his journey with the Argonauts. As he searched for water, he found a spring where the naiads, the nymphs of the rivers and lakes, were dancing. Hylas was young and beautiful, so one of the nymphs was so beguiled by his grace that she seized him when he tried to fill his pitcher with water and dragged him by the neck into the depths.
Waterhouse's painting has an unmistakable erotic appeal. The transparent and porcelain beauty of his nymphs is potentiated by their number and likeness. Through fine facial features, through the long brown hair, the red lips, and the bare breasts, the painter draws the seductresses who conform to Waterhouse's particular and recurring ideal of beauty. All of them fix the young man with longing gaze. Some play with their hair. But it is not only the beauty that is supposed to seduce Hylas - on closer inspection one discovers that the nymph under his head also holds some pearls in both hands, which she offers to him. Hylas is indeed about to fill his jug; but he stops in his movement, as he too is dazzled by the beauty of the nymphs. A moment of doom.
John William Waterhouse - Hylas and the Nymphs
Oil on canvas, 1896, 132.1 × 197.5 cm, Art Gallery in Manchester