Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Lady of Shalott
  • Creator: Waterhouse, John William, painter
  • Description:

    The Lady of Shalott is pictured in an ornately adorned wooden boat. She sits upon an embellished tapestry, likely the one she is weaving in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott”. The most visible image on the tapestry pictures Sir Lancelot, whom the Lady of Shalott has seen in her mirror and with whom she has immediately fallen in love. The crucifix and candles affixed to the front end of the boat provide a motif of religious sacrifice. The single dead leaf which has fallen upon her dress foreshadows her impending doom; a fatal curse has fallen upon her. Her tower window which she has just abandoned can be found in the upper left-hand corner of the scene. The painting gracefully captures the moment before she releases the chain that keeps her connected to her island, after which she will float down the river while she dies


    The Lady of Shalott is depicted in strikingly detailed clothing. Her headband is likely Waterhouse’s conception of the “pearl garland” that Tennyson describes. Her dress echoes Gothic fashion with its trailing sleeves and low-slung belt. Her necklace is made of gold and richly worked, reinforcing her description as “full royally apparelled”. The Lady's mouth is open; she is either struck “like some bold seer in a trance” or has perhaps begun her death song. The Lady is beautiful, a dramatic embodiment of a doomed femininity. She has carved her name into the side of her ship so that those who find her body may identify her.

    Painted in 1888, The Lady of Shalott represents Waterhouse's first work in the Pre-Raphaelite style. This school of painting, represented most notably by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, took inspiration from a medievalism which drew on historical subjects and decorative arts. The 1886 exhibition of Ophelia (painted by Millais in 1851-1852) underlined the continued importance of the Pre-Raphaelite style and the powerful connection of doomed women with water and self-destruction. Waterhouse later painted two additional scenes from the Lady of Shalott's story, The Lady of Shalott (1894) in which she rises from her chair having seen Lancelot in her mirror and "I am half sick of shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott (1915). See links for both in Related Works below.

    The Lady of Shalott is a figure from Arthurian legend, a woman whose story varies from text to text. Tennyson and Waterhouse’s versions of the Lady of Shalott are fascinating because they give the Lady considerably more agency than she had in the medieval stories in which she originated. Tennyson stated that he based his Lady of Shalott on La Donna di Scalotta, a 14th-century novelette. In the tale, the Donna di Scalotta dies of lovesickness (a recognized illness at that time) for Lancelot that is beyond her control. However, Tennyson and Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott chooses her own fate, taking on an agency she never possesses in earlier tales. She decides that she is tired of only being able to see life through a mirror, and accepts whatever may await her when she casts aside her sheltered, albeit mundane, life on her island.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Arthurian Literature in Art Medievalism Romance, Literary Genre Suicide in Art Women in Art
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 19
  • Date: 1888
  • Related Work: Waterhouse, John William. The Lady of Shalott (1894);
    Waterhouse, John William. "I am half sick of shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott (1915)
  • Current Location: London, Tate Britain, N01543
  • Original Location: London
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Canvas; oil paints
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 153/200/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Hoff, James Dennis. "Ut pictora poesis”: Teaching “The Lady of Shalott” and Victorian Visual Culture." CEA Critic 77, 2 (2015): 223-239;
    J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. Ed. by Elizabeth Prettejohn et al. Royal Academy of Art, 2008;
    Orlando, Emily J. "'That I May not Faint, or Die, or Swoon": Reviving PreRaphaelite Women." Women's Studies 38, 6 (2009): 611-646;
    Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Princeton University Press, 2000.