So, Hylas and the Nymphs is back on the wall at the Manchester Art Gallery. The Victorian artist John William Waterhouse’s famous painting was taken down to provoke debate. It certainly did just that, though the debate was more about censorship than about the ethics of male artists painting erotic and potentially exploitative images of young women. Even so, by taking the painting off the walls, in the face of inevitable protests, the Manchester Art Gallery has given us the chance to look at it with fresh as well as suspicious eyes, and to see things in it that we may not have noticed before.
For my part, although I am a big fan of Victorian Romanticism, classical myth and the aesthetic movement, I have never really been that much of a fan of Waterhouse. He is often referred to as a ‘Pre-Raphaelite painter’, but he wasn’t closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and he doesn’t seem to me to have much of their rigour. I don’t mean in terms of his technique, though it is certainly more conventional than theirs. I don’t mean his subject matter either, although I can’t help feeling when I look across a lot of Waterhouse’s paintings at once that they are all the same. He’s not a chocolate-box painter, but seeing too many of his paintings is like eating too many chocolates from the same box.
There are lots of other late Victorian painters who paint beautiful women, often nude, as mythic subjects, some of them rather more compellingly than he does (John Collier and Herbert Draper both spring to mind), but they can also do other things. No, the rigour I particularly have in mind is psychological. Waterhouse’s paintings often seem melodramatic to me, not intense or carefully thought through. The Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Ford argued that painters should think themselves into the parts of their subjects, like actors, in order to understand how their mental experiences would show themselves on their physical bodies. The best Pre-Raphaelite paintings – Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! for example, or Millais’s Isabella – are masterly studies in complex psychological and social situations. Waterhouse typically falls back on more obvious expressions of emotion – a rather different style of acting.
And yet, looking at Hylas and the Nymphs again, I am not so sure. Because it isn’t just the same as the rest of his paintings in one key regard, which I had never really noticed before the Gallery pointed it out. Waterhouse’s paintings are full of nude or semi-nude women, but not of nude girls. I had never really paid the painting enough attention before to realise that the girls in the painting are as young as they seem to be, though quite how young that is is debatable. Only the girl at the extreme right of the painting is unmistakably a child, but they could all be in their mid-teens. Neither the ultimate source for the poem the Greek poet Theocritus’s 13th Idyll, nor its more recent analogue William Morris’s The Life and Death of Jason, specify that the nymphs are underage, nor is there a clear artistic tradition of representing them that way. So why does Waterhouse do it?
I am beginning to wonder whether there isn’t something rather complex going on in a painting I have always taken to be a bit facile. Just over ten years before Waterhouse painted Hylas and the Nymphs the law over sexual consent was changed in England. The Criminal Law Amendment Act famously banned all forms of sexual activity between men – this was the law that sent Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol – but it also raised the age of heterosexual consent from 13 to 16. Since the Gallery took the painting down, many commentators have noticed that in the original story Hylas is Heracles’s gay lover, here subjected to the nymphs’ predatory heterosexual desire. But the girls too, were they transported from their mythic idyll to late Victorian England, might well be at risk of breaking the law themselves. In the painting, the girls are the desiring subjects, their faces depicting different shades of sexual curiosity – this could well be a first sexual encounter for them, a moment of awakening. So we could see the painting as a championing of the right to sexual independence and the naturalness of emergent sexual desire, whether homosexual or pubescent, male or female. But that is surely too easy, because the painting also draws its imagined male viewer into looking with desire at either Hylas or the young nymphs, in each case breaking the moral code of Victorian England. Waterhouse’s own eye, characteristically, seems drawn to the nude female subjects, although the focal point of the poem is not the nymphs’ bodies but the most forward nymph’s desiring gaze. And as soon as the painting becomes a license for an adult desire for the still-young girls, it ceases to be liberating and becomes potentially predatory in its own right.
So perhaps Waterhouse is not so bland a painter as I have tended to think him. By taking Hylas and the Nymphs off the wall, even only for a week, the Manchester Art Gallery have shown him to be challenging the sexual mores of his own time and problematizing our own.
John Holmes is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham. His next book, The Pre-Raphaelites and Science, is being published by Yale University Press in June.