“The Devil is in the Detail” – The Art Gallery of Ontario


Waterhouse’s “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“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”
….Alfred Tennyson

"Stepping" into a painting starts to open up a whole new world for the viewer – so often paintings are grouped randomly or in some sort of a sequence known only to the curator of that particular gallery!!
Often they are simply given a title and an owner (painter) with the date
And of course unless you are an expert you will have no concept of what the painter was trying to convey except if a guide is on hand to explain the nuances of the piece to you.
Once you unlock the key to a particular gallery it will lead you on a trail of discovery that will have you going back again and again.

Sitting quietly on a bench in the very intimate European Gallery at the AGO – cocooned by wraparound masterpieces – is one of my favourite moments of the week (yes, sadly I visit weekly). This for me is better than a gym or yoga workout.
Diagonally opposite the bench is the painting that stirred my interest in Art History and just one example of this potential for discovery – it is a painting by John William Waterhouse , a late-comer of the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Entitled ” I am half sick of shadows says the Lady of Shalott“.

This is Lady Elaine of Astolat.

Her painter created a series of three related pictures inspired by the poem “ The Lady of Shalott” by Lord Tennyson in 1842

•Lord Tennyson’s ballad was loosely based on the Arthurian legend (5th and 6th centuries) of Elaine as recounted in a 13th century Italian novella Donna di Scalotta
•There are three paintings in the collection – one is at the Tate Gallery in London, the second is in Leeds UK and the third – this one is in the European Gallery at the AGO. All of them illustrate a particular passage of the poem based on this medieval legend.

Look closely and you will see a Victorian painter’s highly romanticized notion of a medieval maiden in a turret. She is looking into the distance with her arms thrown behind her head; both wistful and resigned. Lady Elaine Astolat is the heroine of Arthurian legend, who was struck by a curse that limited her to viewing the passing world through a mirror’s reflection. She spends her days embroidering the scenes she witnesses through her back to front portal.

One day she views the breaktakingly handsome Lord Lancelot and falls for him to the extent where she braves the curse and looks directly at him through the window.

This leads to the shattering of the mirror and the curse begins to play out.

There is another beautiful Waterhouse painting depicting this seminal moment in the poem/legend but unavailable for me to put up on this site. If your interest is picqued, it can be viewed on-line in the wikepedia gallery for “John William Waterhouse” It was painted in 1894 so you will have to scroll almost to the bottom of the gallery

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shal...

The Lady of Shalott, based on The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat
And round about that prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott
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 Shalott
There is also another Lady of Shalott painting in the same gallery just a couple of pictures to the left. It is not a Waterhouse painting like the example above, but executed by a near contemporary of his – Homer Watson (in 1877) entitled “the death of Elaine” and also depicts Elaine floating down the river on her funerary boat.
Homer Watson also painted Elaine at the outset of the poem – see below:
The Lady of Shalott (1905)

The Lady of Shalott (1905) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And there’s the problem, without any linkage or historical context given to paintings in many lauded Art Galleries around the world you would never get to the real treasure behind the pictures or indeed if you are a novice like me establish the links between one painting and another for yourself.
But maybe that’s the point:
Perhaps artworks are simply there to tease out a personal reaction.
Maybe its about the work you put in to researching a particular painting and the quest this may lead you on….Maybe thats the point of Art.
And now I can’t move for Lady of Shalott references – or maybe I am just hyper aware right now.
My favourite track right now from “The Band Perry”, has a track entitled “If I die young” – the video is a direct lift from the Shalott legend – the lead singer floats down a river in the Shalott pose holding Tennyson’s book of poetry.
What a journey….
Over and Out


One thought on ““The Devil is in the Detail” – The Art Gallery of Ontario

  1. Pingback: From the island of Shalott « A Christian imagination

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