Art Throb # 31: Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)
163.3 centimetres (38.7 in × 64.3 in)
Oil on canvas
Manchester City Art Gallery

How can you comment on a painting if you haven’t seen it? When curators at Manchester Art Gallery removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs from one of its walls earlier this year, it seemed like an odd decision. Many people accused the gallery of censorship, while others claimed it was a publicity stunt. Artist Sonia Boyce, who co-ordinated the takedown of the painting, said it was ‘an attempt to involve a much wider group of people than usual in the curatorial process’.

Although one couldn’t see the original, it was of course still possible to see the painting online, which meant that people still had a reference point for discussion. For what it’s worth, I have never been to Manchester Art Gallery so I haven’t seen Hylas and the Nymphs in the flesh. Yet here I am writing about it (the days when removing a famous painting from a wall meant that no one had any other way of seeing it are of course long gone). The main response I had when I heard that it had been removed was to kick myself that I hadn’t done an Art Throb on it before, as it seemed such an obvious choice. The painting is now back on the gallery wall, having been rehung after only a few days.

I’ve had it — or various reproductions of it — on my walls too, over the years. I remember the first time I saw it, a good few years before the internet became mainstream, when I was 16 or 17. The copy I saw wasn’t on a gallery wall or in a book but on a greetings card in a shop, so I was able to look at the back of it and see what the painting was called and who created it. I may or may not have been aware of the pre-Raphaelites and certainly didn’t know who Hylas was but, as with Fragonard’s The Swing, I didn’t really care; I just thought it was beautiful. At that age I was close to the age of one of models said to have been used by Waterhouse for his nymphs, which may partly account for the unease it caused my boyfriend’s mum, who said she didn’t think I should have given him the card for his birthday. Perhaps she saw a resemblance — Hylas did look very much like my boyfriend (or at least the back of his head did) and perhaps I too was responding to the similarity, although I didn’t articulate it. A couple of years later the greetings card was to be seen blown up to poster size on the wall of my student digs in Sheffield, and later framed on the bathroom wall of the first house I shared with the man who is now my husband. I’ve always loved the painting, and still do.

The painting is beautiful, which not only partly accounts for its power, but also what’s problematic about it. Easy to look at, it draws our gaze, capturing a moment in the overarching narrative and holding the pause button, instantly seizing our engagement. Once held, our gaze lingers over the combination of luscious colours, idyllic pastoral setting and beautiful youth — all eight of them. Archetypal, elemental, the subject matter is borne of myth, so it also has psychic power: everything about it is designed for us to perceive ourselves, or at least some aspect of ourselves and our desires. The back of Hylas’ head is a space on which the viewer may superimpose their own image, or their own feelings. Add to all this contemporary and modern fears of female sexuality and we have a heady brew of desire and taboo. No wonder my boyfriend’s mum was troubled by it.

So what’s happening? In his 13th epic poem, on which the story of the painting is based, the Greek poet Theocritus (about 300 BC) describes how Hylas came to be the lover of Hercules, after Hercules killed Hylas’ father, Theiodamas, in battle. We’re told how Hercules ‘loved a boy — charming Hylas — whose hair hung down in curls. And like a father with a dear son he taught him all the things which had made him a mighty man, and famous’. In the painting, Hylas is holding a jug, having been sent to fetch water for Jason and the crew of the Argo, who landed on the island in search of the golden fleece. As Hylas reaches down to fill his jug, the nymphs approach him, drawn by his beauty, and Hylas disappears with them into the water. Hercules and the Argo crew search the island for him in vain and eventually leave.

Who are these nymphs? The painter has presented them in human form, and attention is often drawn to their apparent pubescence. These girls could be anything between the ages of 12 – 20 (one of the two models Waterhouse used is said to have been 18); however, it is crucial to keep in mind that they are not in fact human, but naiads (young female deities — a kind of water nymph — typically identified with natural features such as springs, rivers and lakes). Would Waterhouse’s painting be less problematic if it had been called Hylas and the Naiads? It’s possible (if only to remind us of the obvious fact that they live in a pond). Certainly, that word ‘nymph’ has become more challenging over the years. In his paper, The Art of Reception: JW Waterhouse and the painting of Desire in Victorian Britain, Simon Goldhill explains that ‘… the water lilies in this picture are actually of the genus ‘Nymphaea’: the long creeping tendrils of plants were repeatedly used in symbolist art, such as that of Aubrey Beardsley, to suggest the deadly entrapments of seductive and frightening female sexuality. The connection of the nymphs and the Nymphae in which they are set invokes a world of threatening and entangling beauty.’ Yet just because they’re water nymphs, that doesn’t make them passive Lolitas. These are not vulnerable children, but more from the tradition of the femme fatale. Goldhill describes them as ‘… languishing, enticing… bare-breasted, all taken from two models, about to draw the pretty Hylas into the water.’ I query the word ‘languishing’, which implies passivity — these nymphs are anything but. With their focussed gazes and determined postures, they are aware of their physicality, not innocent and oblivious. They know what they are doing, what their objective is and how to achieve it.

What is this objective? Hylas is not a predatory Humbert Humbert, but an age-appropriate victim trapped in a circle of desire, and who is already in what many nowadays would deem to be an abusive relationship with Hercules. What actually happens to him remains vague. The naiads are desirable (they have to be for the story to work), and with his attention directed towards them, Hylas is at the mercy of their power. Feminine energy powers through this painting, which, as in the tradition of female entities emerging from water, recalls the dark, threatening, overpowering sexuality of mermaids. The naiads have agency; they are in control and it is the male who is prey. The implications are that the naiads’ intentions are sinister: they are going to rape Hylas and kill him.

Where is the viewer left in all this? Certainly, even though none of the gazes in the painting is directed at us, there is a role for us; we are included. It is up to us how far we wish to proceed with the remaining narrative — what happens next is left to our imaginations. In addition, Waterhouse’s use of two models to represent the seven nymphs raises questions of repetition. Just as water allows us to see our own reflection, as in a mirror, ultimately, this is a painting that encourages us to look at ourselves, or aspects of ourselves. That the subject matter is taken from ancient myth reinforces its symbolic function as a means for self exploration. Hylas and the Nymphs has always been at once beautiful and uncomfortable to look at. So it should be.


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