This Artwork Changed My Life: John William Waterhouse’s “Hylas and the Nymphs”
John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Elephant and Artsy have come together to present This Artwork Changed My Life, a creative collaboration that shares the stories of life-changing encounters with art. A new piece will be published every two weeks on both Elephant and Artsy. Together, our publications want to celebrate the personal and transformative power of art.
Out today on Elephant is Ione Gamble on Daniel Clowes’s “Ghost World.”
Between mouthfuls of bolognese, my dad and I were arguing. It was January 2018, and the artist Sonia Boyce, who will be the first black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2021, had just removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) from the walls of Manchester Art Gallery. The painting has been a fixture there for over a century.
“I just think,” my dad said as I slurped my spaghetti, “that I should be able to walk into a gallery and see one of my favorite paintings.”
Hylas and the Nymphs is one of my favorite paintings, too. For years, I never missed a chance to trudge in off the street, stand in front of it for half an hour, and get lost. In the painting, Hylas, Hercules’s lover, is being seduced by seven water nymphs, who will soon tempt him into their waters and drown him. For me, it’s synonymous with everything I love—and don’t love—about art. And it sparked my decision to devote my life to studying art.
Working with the curatorial team of the gallery, Boyce staged a “take-down” of the work as part of a critique of the “In Pursuit of Beauty” section of the building—a room full of Victorian representations of alternatively despondent and dangerous femme fatales. The aim was to “challenge a Victorian fantasy” of the representation of women.
The painting was removed for just a week, but in that time accusations of censorship and virtue-signalling dominated local and national discourse. Comments ranged from calling the move “vitally important” and “courageous,” to “a trite PC gesture” that was “born out of the same impulse as book burning.”
This debate was raging as my dad and I spoke. “Do you remember when I first took you to see it?” he asked me.
I nodded. I was seven years old, and seeing the painting sparked my interest in art. I wanted to know how Waterhouse had done it. Not just how he’d rendered figures in paint, but how he’d made the lagoon so inviting, the plant life so rich, the women so ghostly. I wanted to know how Waterhouse had conjured a world—and what it all meant, if it meant anything at all.
For Sonia Boyce, Hylas meant two things, or rather, it raised two issues: the dominance of patriarchy in the painting itself; and the gallery’s uncritical inclusion of the work in its collection.
Visitors read the commentary on notes, which a attached to the place formerly reserved for the painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896) by John William Waterhouse. Photo by Britta Schultejans/Picture Alliance via Getty Images.
The painting, despite (or maybe because of) its masterful handling of light and texture, exemplifies the “male gaze.” The nymphs are not just sexual, they’re available. Waterhouse makes their skin so smooth it’s luminescent; exposes their breasts; and averts their gaze from the viewer. We are invited to study their nude bodies without fear of their reprisal. Therefore, the viewer has visual power over the nymphs, unlike the condemned Hylas. This parallels the societal power men have historically had over women, creating a field of vision that is inherently gendered. The image of a woman or women, in this painting and many others like it, is owned by men.
The second issue arises from art institutions historically privileging this objectification. The study of art and the founding of galleries and museums has long been dictated by those who had the time and resources to engage with and determine what was deemed as “high culture.” As such, they were mainly rich, white, and male, and their specific worldview—including their historically biased perception of women—became fundamental to how art should operate. This is so ingrained in how we see Western art history, it can sometimes be invisible. Yet, despite the continuing reassessment of the canon, Hylas is still a work that I (and many others) find irresistible. As Boyce stated in the Guardian, “what is beautiful to some people may appear to others to represent a problematic and pejorative system.”
Boyce wasn’t the first to protest women’s depictions in the very same room Hylas occupies at the Manchester Art Gallery. In 1913, three Suffragettes attacked Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including works by Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais, damaging the canvases. In her entirely distinct approach, Boyce wanted to stoke discussion around why galleries are so averse to changing problematic works in their permanent collections.
I tried to explain this all to my dad over our spaghetti dinner. “I get that, George,” he said, reaching for the parmesan. “I know why it’s been done. I would just like to see the painting—I don’t grasp how censorship helps us talk about issues in art.”
My father had a point. I’ve often learned more about culture from paintings with dubious moral messages than preachy ones I begrudgingly agree with. Many criticisms of Boyce’s intervention state that instead of “creating debate,” the gallery had dangerously censored art. But I can’t recall another time when a painting dominated headline news so incessantly; when the public came together to express love and hate for an artwork so passionately; or certainly, when curation was a nationwide discussion. The work’s temporary removal had achieved exactly what Boyce wanted—she sparked a widespread conversation about women’s representation in art history, which many likely engaged with as I did, over an otherwise average midweek meal.
We’re at a point where galleries and institutions rightfully host symposiums on colonialism and attempt to balance temporary exhibitions according to race, sexuality, and gender. But this can be performative. These spaces are keen to appear engaged in social justice without exploring the problematic aspects of their permanent collections. Boyce cut through this by temporarily removing an essential work that had for so long been closely tied to the gallery’s popularity.
So in a sense, Hylas and the Nymphs changed my life twice. The first visit to the gallery with my dad awoke my obsession with art’s romance, its sex, its horror, and its stories. But Boyce’s “take-down” solidified my interest in what art means, how it reflects the society it was produced in, and how much further we have to go.
Head to Elephant to read its latest story in the series, Ione Gamble on Daniel Clowes’s “Ghost World.”
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