Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Waterhouse and the Philosophy of the Sublime
The other day I was looking (again) at John William Waterhouse's painting, Miranda - The Tempest. And all of a sudden it occurred to me one reason why this artwork of his is one of his most famous and popular works.
It is the perfect blend of Pre-Raphaelite philosophy and the Victorian philosophy of the sublime.
Sublimity as a philosophical theory dates far further than the Victorian era. It is the concept of mankind standing in awe of something that demonstrates a vast greatness or magnitude beyond what we can comprehend, and it is especially used in reference to nature. During the Victorian era espeically, however, it was a focus of many an artwork in which the viewer was either staring at an observer of nature and was meant to put him or herself in the shoes of the subject on the canvas (who was usually faced away from the camera and was rarely the focal point) and experience the vastness and greatness that the figure was admiring... (pictured above is Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a great example)
or the figure was so small on the canvas as to be almost completely overlooked by the viewer, until they noticed the small smudge on the canvas and imagined how overwhelmed and dwarved one would feel in the same situation.
Back to the artwork by John William Waterhouse, I think that at least part of why the work is so effective is because the figure of Miranda is partially facing away from the viewer, like so many of the sublime Victorian artworks. It is easier to place yourself into her experience, and feel the magnitude of what she is seeing. Yes, there is narration...the boat crashing, the sailors trying to swim to shore, the context of the play that is referred to...but there's also an overwhelming sense of the power of nature...the wind that sweeps her hair and skirts into a riotous mass...the waves crashing just yards away from her feet.
I can think of no other Pre-Raphaelite style (I emphasize style since again, Waterhouse was not technically a Pre-Raphaelite) artwork that focuses so much on the awe and majesty of nature, and that so perfectly invites the viewer to step into the shoes of the painting's subject and experience the sublime.
The inherent philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites seems almost an exact contrast to the philosophy of the sublime when you first read it. In The Germ (the first publication documenting the very beginning of the Brotherhood), the P.R.B. expressed their philosophy as the desire to "enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry." (emphasis mine)
The idea of focusing on the simplicity of nature certainly seems in contrast to the concept of celebrating its majesty. And in this strictest sense, the painting Miranda - The Tempest may not qualify as Pre-Raphaelite, since it certainly isn't a "simple" scene. But as time went on and the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelites went their separate ways, the movement continued with Rossetti, and a more romanticized version of the founding philosophy.
At this point, the work of Rossetti and his fellow artists may be seen to almost create their own new definition of what is sublime. To them, they were certainly celebrating a vast greatness and magnitude beyond what we can comprehend. But to them, the focus of this awe and majesty...was embodied in womankind. They preferred to explore the peaks and valleys of the feminine rather than those of mountaintops. And the divinity they discovered was the divinity either expressly stated in their religious paintings of women, or indirectly stated in paintings such as Rossetti's reverent portraits of Jane Morris, in which every curve of her shoulders, every tilt of her head, seems painted with utmost worship.
J.W. Waterhouse's painting of Miranda also seems to echo this sort of reverence for the main figure. In some strange way, although the viewer may at first be invited to put oneself into her experience, and stand in awe at the power of nature (the more direct and traditional concept of the sublime) one's gaze is afterward drawn in by the central figure herself: the grace with which she holds back her hair, the curve of her back as she fights against the push of the wind that seems to want to draw her forward into the ocean. J.W. Waterhouse paints her in his signature gown...the blue and red dress that can be seen in at least three other artworks he painted (Ophelia 1905, The Enchanted Garden and Fair Rosamund), so in that way she is an archetype. She is somehow reminiscent of a siren, watching a sailor find his death among the sharp rocks. One gets the feeling that she is somehow a part of it all, and has become something greater than herself by experiencing this moment in time, becoming sublime and god-like herself.
So somehow, the artwork works both with the traditional idea of the sublime, and the Pre-Raphaelite vision of sublime womanhood. Ahh, the wonders of the works of John William Waterhouse and the Pre-Raphaelites!