The reappearance at auction of a large, seminal painting by John William Waterhouse, after an absence of over 30 years, is always a cause for celebration, especially one that was executed at the height of the artist’s powers, and which ties together so many of the thematic and aesthetic strands that run through this master’s long career.
Thisbe depicts a scene from one of Waterhouse’s favorite sources, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book IV, the Roman author sets his story in ancient Babylon, where the maiden Thisbe falls in love with her neighbor, Pyramus. Their parents forbid the relationship, forcing them to exchange vows of fidelity through a crack in the wall shared by their families’ houses.
The couple decide to elope with tragic consequences; agreeing to meet at Ninus’s tomb, Thisbe arrives first, but flees when she sees a lioness approaching. Pyramus subsequently arrives and finds the tracks of a lioness and Thisbe’s shawl. Believing that Thisbe is dead, Pyramus thrusts his sword into his belly, killing himself.
Thisbe returns, sees what has happened, and also kills herself, their blood reddening the fruit of the white mulberry bush at which they were to meet; hence mulberries acquire their distinctive hue in perpetuity.
The story’s familiarity to English-speaking audiences was assured in the late 1300s by Geoffrey Chaucer, who included Thisbe in his Legend of Good Women, a tribute to past heroines who have suffered for love.
(In view of his Romantic taste for melancholy, it is no accident that Waterhouse painted five of these figures: not only Thisbe, but also Cleopatra, Medea, Ariadne, and Phyllis.) British audiences were re-introduced to Thisbe by William Shakespeare, who wove her tale into the burlesque performed by Bottom and his friends in Act V, Scene I of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The most relevant passage is:
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.
And in that same year of 1595, Shakespeare reworked the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe into Romeo and Juliet (fig. 3), transferring the action to medieval Verona.
Their story suited Waterhouse ideally not only for its pining woman and theme of love unfulfilled, but also for the botanical metamorphosis that closes it. Ostensibly, the doomed couple live on even now in the beauty of the mulberry bush, just as other Waterhouse women became eternal natural forms.
Painted in the same decade as Thisbe, for example, Echo fades into sound as she admires self-absorbed Narcissus (1903, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, fig. 2); Phyllis emerges from her almond tree to forgive Demophoön (1907); and Daphne becomes a laurel tree as she flees Apollo (1908).
It is significant that Thisbe was first exhibited publicly in the spring of 1909. Only six months later, the critic Rose Sketchley published—in the Christmas number of The Art Journal—the most insightful analysis of Waterhouse’s art to appear during his lifetime, one surely prepared in close consultation with him.
Sketchley writes that that this ‘is art which for its appreciation needs at least a capacity for realizing the alliance between our thought and the romantic vision gathered in literature from Homer to Tennyson. The conformity of the artist’s mind to that vision is unusually close; his sense of the past is, indeed, a poetical sensation.’ (op. cit., p.18.)
For those who might find all these suffering women depressing, Sketchley—a woman working as a journalist while others of her sex struggled for the vote—offers an intriguing take: ‘Like human flowers are these figures, in their harmonious sceneries. Others, ‘Psyche,’ ‘Pandora,’ ‘Isabella,’ ‘Lamia,’ ‘Mariana in the South,’ and especially ‘The Lady of Shalott’ … are images of life forced in upon itself. Types, these, though still flower-like, of the analogy between the unfolding of the rose through earth, and of the soul through suffering.’ (op. cit., p.23.) Waterhouse, then, saw Thisbe and her fellow ‘victims’ ultimately as victors, a vantage in keeping with the Romantic temperament of Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson, whose narratives he also depicted.
Sketchley’s mention of the Lady of Shalott is crucial. Note that Thisbe has just risen from the loom behind her; indeed, we can readily admire the skill of her weaving in the glorious red robe and beige sash she wears. Waterhouse’s generation equated needlework with feminine virtue and domesticity, as the Virgin Mary was believed to have embroidered. From the 1880s onward, Waterhouse showed women who weave well (e.g., the Lady of Shalott, Circe, Penelope).
Biographically speaking, this surely reflects his admiration of the fact that his mother, aunts, step-sister, and wife were all painters (and possibly weavers, too). Moreover, around the time Thisbe was painted, Waterhouse taught part-time at the King’s College School of Art for Women. This was a man who clearly believed in female artistry.
More significantly, Sketchley allays any suspicion that Thisbe’s loom is merely a sign of domesticity. Rather, the journalist underscores Waterhouse’s reverence for “the embroidery of Persephone,” in which the ‘bloom and glow of color were interwrought with the design of the ordered elements: the concretion of solid earth in the midst of the blazing firmament, the rhythmic forthflowing of the sea. With star-gold, purple of waters, and the clear hues of flowers in the grass, the goddess enriched her web, singing as it brightened.’ (op. cit., p.1.)
Sketchley writes that ‘the general mind has lost kinship with the sentiment of mythology. To see itself in the guise of myth and legend, it has need of interpreters to whom classicism and medievalism are no merely formal modes of thought. Art pre-eminently—since it seeks in antiquity not the form which perishes, but the spirit which is perpetual life—has power to interpret to our consciousness that colored imagery of the past, to make it reveal anew its assurance of the ideal in the actual.
In myth and legend especially, those heartfelt forms of belief and hope, there is, for each age, the reflection of its own questing spirit; a reflection that it is well we should be enabled to see, for it reconciles the working of our troubled minds with a mode of beholding that is as ‘fire to reach to fire.’’ (loc. cit.)
Waterhouse, in this context, was a seer, helping his fellow Edwardians find solace in the philosophical and poetical beauty of myths and legends. It is no accident that he was, when Thisbe appeared, hard at work on a large series of paintings that shows young women picking flowers in a vale. Surely these represent Persephone just before Hades drags her down to the underworld. Like Thisbe, she is a soul who triumphs through suffering.
Having risen from her loom, loyal Thisbe ignores the sunny garden beyond with its staircase, a characteristic Waterhouse device that gives the composition its necessary sense of recession while also conveying the comparative darkness of this miserable chamber. The female model is Waterhouse’s favorite of this period, who is unfortunately still not identified by name; she appears with a similarly haunted expression (though endowed with red tresses) in the following year’s Ophelia, and three years later in Penelope and the Suitors (Aberdeen Art Gallery) featuring the same striking disjuncture of pale skin and dark black hair.
Waterhouse did not bother to research the archaeological remains of ancient Babylon: the little stool in the foreground is actually Egyptian, as are the lotuses adorning Thisbe’s gown. The forms that punctuate the window’s transom in the background of the composition are Islamic, the tiles lining the right-hand wall are Ottoman, and the opus sectile flooring is late Roman. Incorrect though they may be, they converge successfully to suggest an exotic, distant past.
It is, however, the brilliantly colored gown—painted with Waterhouse’s beloved lake pigments—that captures our eye and drives it upward to Thisbe’s face, moving along the perfectly designed triangle formed by her arm and head. Triggered by the whispers of Pyramus, the pink flush on her face picks up the robe’s coloring, making the girl’s pallor all the more alarming and alluring.
Other artists of Waterhouse’s generation depicted the story of Thisbe and Pyramus; Edward Burne-Jones certainly admired it, yet Waterhouse may well have been moved to paint it upon seeing Edwin Long’s 1875 vision of Thisbe, which was sold at Christie’s a year before the present picture appeared. Long’s treatment also showed Thisbe listening at the wall, but Waterhouse reverted to a more compelling pose at which he already excelled: this juxtaposition of a woman with a hard surface appears, for example, in Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden (1903, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston) and The Soul of the Rose (1908).
Thisbe was purchased in 1909 by the eminent barrister, art collector and bibliophile Lieutenant-Colonel Fairfax Rhodes (1845-1928). The son of a wealthy stockbroker, Fairfax Rhodes read law at Trinity College, Cambridge before being called to the Bar in 1870. From 1900 he lived at Brockhampton Park, Gloucestershire, where he housed his collection of paintings by contemporary artists, including Henry Scott Tuke’s 1908 masterpiece Midsummer Morning, and Waterhouse’s Ophelia of 1910.
After Rhodes’s death Thisbe entered the collection of William Randolph Hearst, Sr. (1863-1951), the multi-millionaire American businessman and newspaper magnate, who spent vast amounts of money on art and antiques in the 1920s and 1930s and is particularly well remembered for his creation, along with his aid and confidante, the architect Miss Julia Morgan, of San Simeon in California.
In 1925 Hearst bought St. Donat’s Castle in South Wales for £45,000, and under the direction of Sir Charles Allom, the architect-antiquarian-decorator who had recently re-decorated Buckingham Palace for George V, the Castle was transformed in typical Hearst fashion. Large amounts of art and antiques originally destined for San Simeon were shipped to the United Kingdom for St. Donat’s (fig. 1) (it was said that a large part of the World’s tonnage was used in shipping Hearst’s purchases back and forth across the seas).
In 1937 the Hearst Corporation was on the brink of insolvency and drastic measures were taken by a separately formed executive committee. Some of his thirty-seven newspapers were closed or sold off and part of his large art collection dispersed. St. Donat’s was put on the market in 1938, although a new buyer wasn’t found until 1960, nine years after Hearst’s death.
Thisbe and its companion piece of that year, Lamia were well received when they were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909. The Studio, noting ‘Mr. J. W. Waterhouse, an artist who aims consistently at a high order of poetic expression, is represented this year by two small pictures Thisbe and Lamia (fig. 4), which are delightful in their delicate and yet vigorous individuality and entirely attractive in their beauty of color’. The present painting by Waterhouse exemplifies his skill and fully displays the enduring appeal of his works.
The key elements of Waterhouse’s art come together successfully in this picture – the heroine is beautiful, real and believable, his eye for color and detail are fully expounded as are his sense of composition and his instinct for focusing on the moment of stillness of the story on which the whole plot turns. The reappearance of this picture at auction after an absence of 30 years provides collectors, who admire Waterhouse’s artistry and keenly felt connection to such ancient stories of passion and transformation, with a rare opportunity to purchase one of Waterhouse’s iconic masterpieces.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for contributing this catalogue note.
(fig. 1): Private dining room in St. Donat’s Castle, South Wales, c. 1950.
(fig. 2): John William Waterhouse, Echo and Narcissus, 1903. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
(fig. 3): Frederic, Lord Leighton, The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, 1855.
(fig. 4): John William Waterhouse, Lamia, 1909.
Another good commentary:
What does this painting by John William Waterhouse of Ovid’s tragic heroine, Thisbe, have to do with the card assigned to January 5th – the Nine of Spades (or Swords in Tarot)?
A lot of people interpret this card as being about sorrow or worry or sleepless nights. We like to think that Nines are about manifestation on the Earthly plane, a form of giving birth.
But what does that mean? How can a story of forbidden love, much like Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde conceal a positive message? Here we see Thisbe actually communicating with her lover Pyramus through a crack in a wall because the two are not allowed to meet. How can that be a good thing?
Well, when the conscious and subconscious mind are not aligned, as in when your logical brain tells your mind of dreams and desires to take a back seat, the Magic suffers and usually dies a slow death. The Nine of Spades tells us to let go of such outmoded thought patterns and allow our Higher Selves to shine.
The crack in the wall? Well, that’s the awareness of who you want to be. So walk your own Grail Trail on this Nine of Spades’ day and see what happens when the prose and the passion connect, and self realization is experienced in an exalted state.
An introduction found at MARTIN BEISLY FINE ART
The reappearance on the art market of a large canvas by Waterhouse, after an absence of over 30 years, is a cause for celebration. Thisbe was painted when the artist was at the height of his powers and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909. It is a work laden with meaning and employs many of the leitmotifs and aesthetic strands that run throughout Waterhouse’s long career.
Thisbe belongs to a period in Waterhouse’s career that was marked by less sensationalist works, his pictures still convey a clear narrative or a succinct subject, but they are often less startling in their revelations. Waterhouse’s paintings of the 1890s are dramatically intense and erotically charged, such as Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, The Lady of Shalott, 1894, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, and Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus, 1900.
By the beginning of the 20th Century we find Waterhouse returning to some of his favourite themes, alternating between pictures depicting episodes from classical myths and stories taken from literature, often depicting victimised or wronged female protagonists.
In 1902 and 1903 respectively he exhibited Windflowers and Boreas (private collections). Boreas, the destructive brother of Zephyrus, the south wind, courted the mortal princess Oreithyia unsuccessfully and when his wintery reign ended he forcibly carried her off. 1903 also saw two depictions of the tragic figure of Psyche, condemned by the jealous goddess Venus to undertake a series of impossible tasks with Psyche entering Cupid’s Garden (Harris Museum and Art Gallery) and Psyche opening the Golden Box (private collection).
Waterhouse returned to literature and the poet Keats with his Lamia of 1905 (private collection). 1906’s offerings included two pictures whose subjects were taken from Ovid; the transgressive Danaides (Aberdeen Art Gallery), depicts the daughters of King Danaid who murdered their husbands and, though pardoned by Zeus, were condemned to forever fill a leaking cauldron in Hades. In 1907 Waterhouse painted another wronged female in Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-75) Il Decameron includes the story, which was made popular by Keats. In the poem, Isabella falls in love with one of her brothers’ workers, Lorenzo. They murder her lover and bury his body. Isabella informed of the murder by Lorenzo’s ghost exhumes his body and reinters his head in a pot in which she plants basil.
Watered by her tears the basil thrives while Isabella herself wastes away. Waterhouse next depicts two stories taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which illustrate Waterhouse’s fascination with transformation and his preoccupation with wronged women, Phyllis and Demophoon (untraced) and Apollo and Daphne (private collection), exhibited in 1907 and 1908 respectively.
In these pictures both women are transformed into flowering trees in response to their mistreatment by men. For the present painting, Thisbe, exhibited in 1909, Waterhouse returns again to one of his favourite sources.