A bunch of artist friends and I took advantage of a long weekend and headed up to Montreal to see the J. W. Waterhouse exhibit—the largest-ever collection of Waterhouse work, on display until February 7th. Montreal will be its only North American venue.
Typically, seeing a full body of one artist’s work—being able to view a life-time’s worth of progression, picking up on reoccurring symbols and learning their visual language—makes me appreciate the individual pieces more. I have to admit, in this case I felt I may have gotten more out of the paintings if I had stumbled upon them slowly over time. They are all beautiful, to be sure, but the effect of so many depictions of wistful women as an ideal of a feminine “whatever” eventually got me a bit eye-rolly. That said, my four or five favorite paintings of the show are amazing and well worth the trip all on their own.
The scale of the paintings was surprising, major works reaching six to nine feet, and added to the otherworldliness of the mythological themes Waterhouse often depicted. The application of paint is loose and wonderful to look at up close. (We were thankful to guards that never seemed to mind us standing nose-close to the works.) It was as easy to get lost in the folds of a woman’s dress as it was the beauty of their faces.
Among my favorites…
“The Lady of Shalott,” his most famous work, is heartbreaking. We see her embarking in what is soon to be her funeral barge. A sense of longing, freedom, and doom woven into her breath. The tapestries dragging in the water, at last a direct connection to the earth. Her face is in sharp focus while everything else softens around her a moment of clarity within a dream.
“The Magic Circle,” perhaps my favorite of the exhibit, shows a woman of real strength and depth. I love the slightly out-turned knee required to cut through the earth. Each crow looks like it has a part to play in the incantation. And, come on, the live snake ouroboros around her neck is just badass.
“Mariamne,” another woman of strength and confidence. She stands strong as a marble column amongst so much judgment, the only figure able to look at the other players in the eye. The glow of her dress is striking but even more evocative is the shadow across her faceshe is much more beautiful and mysterious because we can’t quite see her.
I didn’t know Waterhouse’s work nearly as well as others on the trip, but once there I realized how many of his paintings are icons. After a while, women standing on their toes with tilted heads doesn’t quite do it for me, but individually they are great and it was a treat to see them. Also on display was a room full of his sketch books and color studies. I never seem to get used to the fact that the process of painting has not changed for hundreds of years—thumbnails, drawings, color comps—it’s not magic, just hard work.
Unfortunately the museum gets no marks for exhibition design. Matte black walls and glossy black signage gave the place a “welcome to my sexy-den” vibe, and being in darkness meant that the paintings had to be spotlit, causing lots of reflections.
The rest of the museum is smallish but with some real gems. We ran across this Pascal Dangan-Bouverete painting and fell in love with it. These women are beautiful—stark, formal, honest and direct—without being a “feminine ideal.”
Despite reservations, it’s a show I’m very glad to have seen, made unmissable because of the company I was with. If you live nearby and were considering making the effort, you should go. And if you live in the States near the Amtrak line, the train ride is to die for. I know it would be just as spectacular in the summer and heartbreaking in the fall, but being able to see through trees and deep into snow-covered fields and frozen lakes was mesmerizing. The only downside: all the reading and work I thought I would do sat in my bag, mocking me, while I stared out the window for twelve hours straight.
More images from the museum, the train, and the trip here.
Irene Gallo is the art director of Tor, Forge, and Starscape books and Tor.com.