As Europe begins to open up to travelers again, it is more exciting than ever to think about the cultural treasures that lie ahead. For me, one of the great joys of traveling is meeting the great art personally – which I have collected in a book. Top 100 Masterpieces in Europe. Here’s my favorite one:
The ghostly face of this woman immediately makes it clear that – despite the great beauty of this figure – it does not tell a happy story. The Lady of Shalt knows she is floating in a river for her destruction.
English artist John William Waterhouse depicts the dramatic climax of a legendary story. The Lady of Shalt spent her entire life confined to a castle near King Arthur Camelot, and was forbidden to look outside in agony. He could only observe the world indirectly through reflection in his mirror. But one day, the handsome Knight Lancelot climbs past. He was so hurt that he broke the rules and looked straight at her. Now she has followed her track and boarded a boat, leaving the mooring chain, when she set off unknowingly to find her loved one, whatever the cost.
Riverside landscapes – reeds, ink water, dark atmospheres, and even flying birds – evoke the melancholy beauty of the moment. Mrs. Shalt is glowing brightly, her white gown and red hair radiating from a dark background. Waterhouse focuses on provocative details, such as the lady’s discreet hair, pearl necklace, light rumple dress and clothed hands. For the lady’s face, he drew his own wife. The colors – red, green and blue – shine bright, clear and bright, like stained glass windows.
The whole scene looks medieval, yet it was painted in an industrial era when Britain was leading the world in new technologies such as electricity and trains. As Victorian Britain progressed, its artists looked to the past. The Waterhouse was inspired by a group of British artists known as the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, who painted medieval brides and legendary lovers with heartbreaking beauty.
Pre-Rafalites hated overacting. So – even in the midst of great tragedy, high spirits and moral dilemmas – this lady has just raised an eyebrow. But there is a lot of talk around him. Night is coming down, predicting his dark fate. The first leaf of autumn has fallen, near her thighs. He brought bright tapestries woven into captivity, with a view of the world of comfortable illusions that he once knew. Now he is led only by a faint lantern of Prove, a small crucifix to strengthen his faith, and three fragile candles – one of which is still burning.
Victorians of all ages knew this romantic legend (which was also Tennyson’s best-selling poem). Everyone can read their own meaning in the painting: the lady has chosen to leave her safe-but-confused existence to follow the truth. She is following her heart despite the danger. Even at the cost of losing herself in the process, she risks finding intimacy, love, and sex. His facial expressions show a mixture of fear, hope, weakness and a perception that – whatever it is – is his destiny.
He leaves the chain. Then, Tennyson writes, “like some brave spectator in a trance,” he “went down the fading expanse of the river.” Legend has it that the Lady of Shalt’s boat sailed down and washed ashore at Camelet, where Lancelot saw it and mourned for her. He surrendered under the curse of seeing the world as it is.