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J.W. Waterhouse's Rape of Persephone

By Peter Trippi

Reproduced here is the full text of a presentation given by art historian and Waterhouse biographer Peter Trippi at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the College Art Association in Atlanta, Georgia (February 16-19, 2005). The presentation was part of a session chaired by Alicia Craig Faxon called The Pre-Raphaelites and the Mythic Image.

John William Waterhouse
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1909

J. W. Waterhouse's Rape of Persephone

Partly because his most famous painting is The Lady of Shalott, the late Pre-Raphaelite artist J.W. Waterhouse, who lived from 1849 to 1917, is closely associated with his many Tennysonian heroines. Although he admired their soulfully Romantic intensity, he actually painted more scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Like artists before and after him, Waterhouse was attracted to the vivid pictorialism of Ovid's verse, and to his celebration of physical transformations as emblems of the passage from suffering to acceptance, from death to eternal life. Waterhouse's Echo and Narcissus is a fine example of this fascination.

Less understood is his engagement with what an interviewer, Rose Sketchley, described in 1909 as 'the last poem of living paganism', De Raptu Proserpinae (The Rape of Persephone). The "DRP," as I shall call it, was written by Claudian late in the 4th century AD in the manner of Ovid. Born in Alexandria, Claudian flourished in the courts of the Roman emperors Honorius and Arcadius, but his success ended with the ruin of his patron, Stilicho, and he died penniless in 404. In the three chapters that constitute the DRP, which has always been considered his finest work, Claudian expanded upon the mythic fable treated by Ovid in both the Metamorphoses and Fasti. In this myth, the maiden Persephone is abducted from a flowery meadow by Hades, ruler of the underworld, who resents that he is the only unmarried god. Persephone's mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, wanders the world seeking her daughter; in her grief all vegetation withers, and the resulting misery of mankind forces Zeus to allow Persephone to return every spring for half the year, reunited with her mother. Through this melodrama, the Greeks not only explained the change of seasons, but also celebrated the passionate, potentially deadly, love of a mother for her child.

Using the complex system of allusions perfected earlier by Ovid, Virgil, and Statius, Claudian provides loosely connected episodes which lack a unifying theme and the heroic subject usually reserved for his epic format. Modern readers find his language pretty and speeches passionate, but also digressive and rhetorical, with the most important incidents too compressed. In 1814 the English translator J.G. Strutt noted that 'the peculiar beauties of Claudian consist in a certain delicacy and tenderness of thought, united to bold and luxuriant description. [only here] do we perceive the true vigour of the poet.' Victorian commentators often applied the words 'delicacy' and 'tenderness' to Waterhouse paintings, and I believe it was this gentle, learned lyricism which drew Waterhouse, alone among his fellow artists, to this obscure text, which could be found easily at his grammar school and at the British Library, where he registered as a reader in 1870.

How did Waterhouse come to consult a classical source in the first place? Let's return to the dawn of his career and this signed canvas entitled The Death of Cocles. Dating from roughly 1869, when Waterhouse was 20 and helping his father paint portraits, this may well reflect a partnership, as the older Waterhouse produced similar subjects from the 1840s. This episode, celebrated in Thomas Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome in 1842, shows the farmer Horatius Cocles expiring after saving Rome by swimming across the Tiber. This hero probably appealed to the younger Waterhouse's fascination with Roman exploits, which he described to Rose Sketchley in 1909. Cocles is clearly an Alpha Male—bearded, muscular, expansive, admired by all around.

From 1871, when Waterhouse began his long journey to official honors by joining the Royal Academy Schools, he pursued classically inspired themes, but now infused with an Aesthetic melancholy and odd subjects such as Sleep and His Half-Brother Death and The Remorse of Nero after the Murder of His Mother. A key example is The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius of 1883, which shows a delicate youth engrossed not in heroic leadership but in feeding birds. Even knowledgeable commentators had to consult Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to recall this obscure ruler from the 4th century, who had abandoned the capital to establish a weak but cultivated court at Ravenna. I believe that Waterhouse consulted not only Gibbon, but also Claudian's many forgettable odes to Honorius; indeed, Claudian himself may well be one of these lackeys.

Waterhouse's few surviving letters reveal a retiring personality probably more comfortable at home reading than attending Academy banquets. I believe that from 1883—when The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius won rave reviews—Waterhouse never forgot Claudian or his DRP. We have no evidence that he depicted the rape of Persephone until 1908, except perhaps for this sketch, penciled into Waterhouse's own volume of Tennyson poems sometime after 1885. Its composition of a girl picking flowers is surely inspired by Burne-Jones's much reproduced March Marigold of 1870. In his youth Tennyson had translated the DRP, and in 1889 he published his own 'Demeter and Persephone.' He was particularly intrigued with the tapestry that Persephone wove in nature's colors with the design of elements like water and earth; indeed, this was one of several sources that led Tennyson to celebrate the Lady of Shalott's magical web in 1832. Today I shall focus on Waterhouse's transferral of this pose to a now-neglected series of oil paintings undertaken from 1908 to 1914, which I call the "Persephone pictures." In 1909, the same year Sketchley published her profile of Waterhouse, he completed the first of these canvases for his patron Brodie Henderson.

I make no claim for the greatness of this series. Its five pictures, along with seven known preparatory oils, are frankly decorative; all were exhibited publicly, and three bought by members of the Henderson family. The first, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, takes its title from the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick's verse exhorting 'virgins, to make much of time.' In 1910 came Spring Spreads One Green Lap of Flowers, then A Song of Springtime of 1913, Narcissus of 1913 (in which the girl picks narcissus flowers), and Flora of 1914. I show here as well an oil sketch with a vaguely classicized cityscape beyond. These can be interpreted simply as girls picking flowers, but Sketchley's commentary—plus my own consideration of Waterhouse's long engagement with myth—point to their double-life as decorous evocations of Persephone's rape.

In Claudian's first chapter, Persephone weaves the tapestry that represents the whole of creation. In Strutt's translation, "Her needle paints//The birth and order of the elements;//And shows by what true laws Nature appeased//Pristine confusion, when her parent hand//Assign'd each unfix'd principle a seat." Within her composition appear the air, the dark purple sea, glittering stars, and rocky shores sparkling like gems. She also depicts the shores of Hades, a melancholy sight at which she sheds tears that anticipate her own misery. In Chapter 2, Persephone picks flowers on the slopes of Mount Etna, the volcano beneath which Hades lived. Claudian shows her accompanied by Aphrodite, Diana, and Minerva, though Ovid mentions only some attendant nymphs, a tradition that Waterhouse seems to prefer. Persephone's violent abduction by Hades is described only briefly, with more attention paid to Zeus's signal to the goddesses not to defend the victim.

In the final chapter, Demeter weeps over the abandoned tapestry, then wanders seeking clues. Claudian does not emphasize the withering of vegetation, and the DRP closes, unsatisfyingly, with Demeter unaware of her daughter's precise fate.

Of course this myth was celebrated before and after Claudian, with each artist focusing on the episode that matters most to him. To choose a few examples, in 1621 Gian Lorenzo Bernini showed tears streaming down the maiden's face as she is carried off. In 1878, Walter Crane showed this same moment of attack, albeit less violently. In the 1870s and early 1880s D.G. Rossetti returned again and again to the theme of Proserpine, gazing forlornly toward the light that reminds her of earth. In 1865, the older Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys presented Persephone returning from the dead as Gentle Spring and included Swinburne's sonnet on this subject in his catalogue entry. Why, then, would Waterhouse focus on Claudian's lyrical, yet dull, description of Persephone gathering flowers?

He had long been fascinated with what Shelley called 'the loveliness of terror,' as seen in his decorous handling of such potentially gruesome subjects as the martyrdom of Saint Eulalia and the testing of Odysseus by the Sirens. Waterhouse had already depicted the abduction and transformation of flower-picking women; here the wind god Zephyr sweeps the nymph Chloris into his arms to transform her into Flora, and his brother Boreas invisibly whips the drapery of Oreithyia. Persephone's supremely Romantic myth remained familiar to educated Britons well into the 20th century; in March 1914 The Times could assume readers' comprehension when it noted in an article about London's impressive plantings that 'it was daffodils that Proserpine is said to have been gathering in the Sicilian meadows when Pluto seized her and carried her off to the infernal regions.'

Waterhouse's wife, Esther, exhibited her own flower paintings at the Royal Academy and other London venues during the 1880s; although she was apparently working as a theatre reviewer by the time her husband painted these images of Persephone, it's possible that flowers were highly visible in the couple's childless household. As suggested by the phrase "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May," Waterhouse associated Persephone's beauty, fertility, and fragility with flowers—all seen to best effect in these meadows. The series, then, offers a nostalgic look backward to a moment of sexual and spiritual innocence to be lost forever through the intervention of Hades's unquenchable lust. Persephone is not only about to lose her virginity, but also about to die. Waterhouse surely agreed with Ruskin that the Greeks 'saw that the force and use of the flower was only in its death', and with J.G. Frazer's linking, in The Golden Bough, of Persephone's annual return to earth with the awakening of Adonis, which Waterhouse himself depicted in 1899: in both tales, a goddess mourns her loved one, who embodies buried vegetation that 'comes to life again, as from the grave'. Claudian alludes to the procession of initiates to Demeter's shrine at Eleusis, and to the impression made upon them as they stand in the dark watching light emerge from the torch-lit interior.

Like Claudian, Frazer alluded to these ecstatic rites, in which the Greeks re-enacted Persephone's abduction in order to celebrate nature's fertility and prepare for their own death and rebirth. The Eleusinian Mysteries were re-enacted by occultist groups in late 19th-century London, and I have found evidence pointing to the fact that Waterhouse, his best friend, the landscape painter Peregrine Feeney, and possibly their wives—who were sisters—joined one of these cults, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waterhouse inscribed a volume of his brother-in-law's poetry with the date June 24, 1913 and the word "Sunrise." Feeney died on that date, the pre-Christian Midsummer's Eve, and Waterhouse proceeded to design this headstone for Feeney showing the sun rising over the sea. Even more than the Lady of Shalott or Ophelia, Persephone mattered to Waterhouse because her passionate awakening to sex, her death, and her metamorphosis conveys a hopeful message of natural regeneration, the survival of the mortal soul after the death of the body, and the potential for resurrection.

In 1907, the Athenaeum declared that 'Mr. Waterhouse is no longer hailed by fashion as the painter of the picture of the year.' As his Victorian visions lost their currency in the Edwardian age, Waterhouse surely appreciated Sketchley's assertion that full comprehension of his art was reserved 'for those alone who can feel the action of the spirit through the shape and course of Greek myth and mediaeval romance.' Sketchley marked Waterhouse as a Romantic visionary by arguing that his mythic pictures correspond directly with elements in Persephone's tapestry: water, earth, and flowers figure centrally in his oeuvre, and subjects such as the Lady of Shalott represent 'the analogy between the unfolding of the rose through earth, and of the soul through suffering.' Sketchley argued that Waterhouse saw 'nature as a process of the soul, a shrine, when, at last, the soul has found its stillness beneath the changing appearances of the body.' All of this reflects the understandable preoccupation of a 60-year-old painter with mortality, especially as Waterhouse's health had been poor since the turn of the century.

Claudian's preface compares the progress of the world's first mariner to that of the poet—a double for Claudian himself—who gradually advances from less ambitious enterprises to a final culmination, embodied by the DRP. Waterhouse was, throughout his career, concerned with this problem of artistry; we see this in his three treatments each of the Lady of Shalott and Ophelia, one weaving wool and the other flowers, in his two treatments of Odysseus experiencing the dangerous power of female beauty, in his reverie on Saint Cecilia's music-making, and—most compellingly—in the unwillingness of Orpheus's severed head to stop singing the truth. Moreover, both Odysseus and Orpheus—as well as Psyche, whom Waterhouse depicted twice—endured visits to Hades in pursuit of their missions.

In this regard, Waterhouse probably saw Claudian as a soulmate. The poet wrote the first chapter of the DRP, then abandoned the project work due to obligations at court, resuming it years later. This determination surely appealed to Waterhouse, who admitted to fretting over his canvases for months, and who therefore produced far fewer pictures in total than his contemporaries.

I hope this paper has helped to refine appreciation of Waterhouse's erudition by re-examining a series which at first seems unremarkable, and by considering why Persephone might have mattered in the twilight of a sickly artist. By 1909, Pre-Raphaelitism was fading; its founders were dead, its masterworks were being collected by museums and millionaires, and the best British artists had shifted their attention elsewhere. World War 1 finished off Waterhouse and Pre-Raphaelitism, a fact which makes these paintings—so hopeful in their promise of resurrection—more significant, and poignant, than we might have realized.

John William Waterhouse Symposium at Tate Britain

On the 10th of October 2002, Tate Britain held a one day Symposium dedicated to John William Waterhouse, timed to coincide with the publication of a new monograph J W Waterhouse by Peter Trippi.

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