Monday, October 25, 2010

John William Waterhouse - apollo and daphne

Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 1,103,500 GBP (2001)

signed and dated l.l.: J.W.Waterhouse 1908
oil on canvas
145 by 112 cm., 57 by 44 in.

The second half of the 1890s witnessed J.W. Waterhouse's arrival as one of the leading artists of the day (he had been elected as a full member of the Royal Academy in 1895). In this period he turned largely to mythological subjects, finding in these themes a compelling and sometimes ominous drama. Among the great works of this type are Hylas and the Nymphs (Manchester City Art Gallery), which was painted in 1896 and exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year, and Flora and the Zephyrs (ex Sotheby's, London, 6 November 1996, lot 307), of 1897. He particularly relished moments of fateful confrontation between the gods and mortals of Greek and Roman legend, and paintings by him such as the present subject Apollo and Daphne, which illustrates the story told in Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses (also given in the Fabulae of Hyginus), are darkly beautiful and thoughtful reinterpretations of an ancient iconographic tradition.

Daphne was the daughter of a river-god called Peneus who lived as a wild huntress who 'roamed the pathless woods, knowing nothing of men.' Apollo saw Daphne, and because he had been smitten with a golden arrow of Cupid, he fell in love with her. To revenge himself upon Apollo who had questioned his supremacy as an archer, Cupid also wounded Daphne but with an arrow that would cause her always to flee from love. Therefore, and despite Apollo's entreaties and attempts to reassure her that he meant her no harm, she ran from him - 'even then, she was graceful to see, as the wind bared her limbs, and its gusts stirred her garments, blowing them out behind her. Her hair streamed in the light breeze, and her beauty was enhanced by her flight.' Apollo ran after her, and pursued her to the river of which Peneus was the god; at the moment when finally he laid his hands upon her and as she uttered a plea to her father to save her she was transformed into a laurel or bay-tree: 'A deep languor took hold on her limbs, her soft breast was enclosed in thin bark, her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches, and her feet that were lately so swift were held fast by sluggish roots, while her face became the treetop. Nothing of her was left, except her shining loveliness.'

Waterhouse shows Apollo rushing towards Daphne; his right arm has practically enclosed her, while in his left hand he holds his lyre. Daphne looks back at him with an expression of fear, perhaps mixed with submission, as if startled both by his passionate attempt upon her and by the sudden awareness that she was at that moment changing into the form of a living tree. One of her legs is already encased within the bole, while the folds of her dress seem to be solidifying into bark. At the centre of the composition is a glimpse of the river to which she had returned in search of refuge.

The painter had perhaps looked at earlier representations of the subject. A painting attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo, from the late fifteenth century, in the National Gallery since 1876, may have served as a loose prototype for the iconographic elements. However, the clear source for the dynamic movement and physicality of the composition is Bernini's marble statue Apollo and Daphne, of 1622-4. Waterhouse would undoubtedly have seen this group in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, having made frequent visits to Italy - and specifically to Rome (in which city, incidentally, he had been born) - in the 1870s and 1880s.

Waterhouse seems to have made two versions of this subject. In his 1980 monograph on the artist Anthony Hobson reproduces an early photograph of the alternative version - distinguished from the present painting by the fact that the figure of Apollo is wearing sandals. In his second book, of 1989, Hobson indicates that the present painting is the version of the subject that belonged to Lord Lambton.

London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1908, no.177 (?)
Liverpool, Autumn Exhibition, 1910, no.1042 (?)
Bristol, Royal West of England Academy, 1918, no.119 (?)

Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse RA 1849-1917, London, 1980, p.190, cat. no.162 (reproduces another version of the subject pl.130 )
Anthony Hobson, J.W. Waterhouse, Oxford, 1989, p.89, pl.66

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