Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Consulting the Oracle

Price Realized

signed 'J.W. Waterhouse' (lower right)
oil on canvas
17½ x 28½ in. (44.5 x 72.5 cm.)

Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J. W. Waterhouse RA 1849-1917, London, 1980, p. 182, no. 60.

The present picture is a superb reduced-scale replica painted by J.W. Waterhouse after the larger work he had just exhibited to acclaim at the Royal Academy of Arts' Summer Exhibition of 1884. The image seen in both the replica and the larger canvas (now in Tate Britain) is best considered through two lenses: its sensational subject, and its instantaneous fame.

In the Summer Exhibition catalogue, Waterhouse provided a brief explanation of his theme: "The Oracle or Teraph was a human head, cured with spices, which was fixed against the wall, and lamps being lit before it and other rites performed, the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed that they heard a low voice speaking future events." The source of this subject, unprecedented in British art, seems to have been one of several 19th-century editions of Antiquities of the Jews, written by the historian Flavius Josephus in the first century AD. This was a peculiar choice for the 35 year-old artist -- by all accounts a man on the rise -- yet his risk paid off handsomely.

The Art Journal was right to call it "an intensely dramatic picture." Like a theatre director luring his audience into the world onstage, Waterhouse left a place open for the viewer in the semicircle of women, defined by the marble ledge on which they sit. Together with her extended arm, the priestess's curling hand, framed by a block of sunlight, commands attention by implying that the oracle is in the process of prophesying. Viewers feel both fascination and repulsion: the oracle's head is gruesome, two Torah scrolls lie ignored in the cabinet at right, and the listeners appear dangerously close to hysteria. The Art Journal noted the women's "swollen features, glazed eyes and a certain ecstatic insincerity," further accentuated by their unladylike open mouths and the disarray of the carpets. Using an impasto appropriate to his excitable theme, Waterhouse studded the shadowy masses with small areas of saturated colour.

Consulting the Oracle represents a re-emergence of the Orientalism Waterhouse had first explored in 1872 with a now-unlocated painting, The Slave; each uses an Eastern setting to excuse a compellingly lurid subject. Its antiquity provided additional respectability: the Illustrated London News noted that "a careful study of archaeology and history has been combined with bold drawing and rich colouring, to a degree attained by few of the followers of Mr Alma-Tadema." (Through 1891, Waterhouse's paintings were often compared with those of Lawrence Alma-Tadema [1836-1912], who was renowned for archeological exactitude and elegant colouring.) In fact, Waterhouse first conceived this scene as Greek, not Hebrew; a preparatory drawing (Tate Britain) shows the Pythian Sibyl, through whom Apollo's oracle spoke at Delphi. Waterhouse may have shifted to a Hebrew setting to distinguish this picture from the numerous Greek scenes exhibited in this period.

In Victorian art, Eastern women, including Hebrews, represented everything the idealized Englishwoman was not: strong, passionate, seductive, irrational, and unknowable. These women strain to hear and see in a darkened room, and Waterhouse suggested their sensuality with the breast visible through the foremost figure's gown. Consulting the Oracle epitomizes Waterhouse's preference in the mid 1880s for darker models, whom he may have sketched in Italy or obtained from the community of Italians who modeled in London.

Consulting the Oracle is the first of many Waterhouse pictures featuring an enchantress's intense gaze. He probably grew interested in this motif through the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), whose work first appeared at the Royal Academy in 1878. From 1880, the Frenchman exhibited regularly in London, where younger artists idolized him, and his prestige soared even higher upon his early death in 1884. He had attended lectures on the 'psychologie nouvelle' by Jean-Martin Charcot, who developed medicine's understanding of hysteria as a neurological disorder and influenced Sigmund Freud. From the 1870s Charcot published photographs of his patients, and Bastien attracted international attention by using their expressions, described in 1883 by the American critic W.C. Brownell as "half-conscious, half-ecstatic."

Like animals of the same species, Waterhouse's women are virtually indistinguishable physically, yet each reacts to the prophecy with a unique pose. Waterhouse had long admired the art of the renowned French academician Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), who favoured groups responding to a single phenomenon with different expressions, much like theatre audiences watching performers. A famous example was his Phryne Before the Tribunal (1861, exhibited London 1866, now Hamburger Kunsthalle), with its sensational theme and potentially arousing display of flesh.

When he exhibited Consulting the Oracle in 1884, Waterhouse was perceived as a man on the rise in English art. A year earlier, his comparably scaled The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius had won warm praise and was acquired immediately by the Art Gallery of South Australia at Adelaide. Three months before Consulting the Oracle appeared at the Academy, the influential journalist M.H. Spielmann (1858-1948) reported that Waterhouse had already sold it for £900. Although this price did not match the sums commanded by such stars as Sir Frederic Leighton and Sir John Everett Millais, it was very good for such a young man. The buyer was the sugar-refining magnate Henry Tate (1819-99), who a year later purchased Waterhouse's even more sensationally themed St Eulalia, which promptly got Waterhouse elected an Associate of the Academy.

The Illustrated London News thought enough of Consulting the Oracle to reproduce it across a double-page spread, hailing it as "a careful study of archaeology and history combined with bold drawing and rich colouring." The Magazine of Art called it "one of the successes of the year...there is enough of passion and drama and character in the group of devotees, and enough of good colour and good painting everywhere, to make the work in every sense remarkable." In his caricature for Punch magazine, Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) showed Consulting the Oracle hanging alongside other "pictures of the year" by such renowned artists as Sir Frederic Leighton.

Apparently Consulting the Oracle delighted Waterhouse's colleagues, as well: one artist (whose name is not recorded) applied unsuccessfully to the Academy Council for permission to make a small copy. It was common in this era for artists to create replicas of their most successful works for wealthy patrons who had missed the chance to buy the original version. This seems to be the case for the present picture, which may well have been made expressly for its first recorded owner, the horticulturalist Sir Harry Veitch (1840-1924), who was instrumental in creating what is now the Chelsea Flower Show.

Waterhouse died of liver cancer in 1917, during the depths of World War I, and so his passing was not commemorated formally by the Academy until 1922, when the institution mounted a group show of recently deceased Academicians. Veitch loaned the present picture for that exhibition, then bequeathed it to the art gallery in his native Exeter, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Many Waterhouse pictures entered Britain's municipal galleries in this manner during this era, and it is revealing of the artist's posthumous fall from prestige that several works were deaccessioned by such institutions in the 1950s. Consulting the Oracle thus left Exeter's collection in 1954 and has been privately owned ever since.

Waterhouse's star has slowly returned to prominence since the late 1960s, and it is telling that the original version of Consulting the Oracle (still in the founding collection of Tate Britain) is prominently featured in the retrospective exhibition currently drawing crowds at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts after equally popular presentations at the Groninger Museum (Netherlands) and Royal Academy of Arts, London. The Montreal showing closes February 7, 2010.

We are grateful to Peter Trippi for preparing the above catalogue entry.

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