John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.
Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.
For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”
The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.
The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.
We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”
Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.
Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.
Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.
Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.
Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.