The youngest of seven children, Henrietta Rae was born in Hammersmith and brought up in Holloway. Her father was a civil servant with literary and theatrical interests, her mother a musician who had studied under Mendelsohn. In 1874, when she was fifteen, she entered Heatherley's School of Art in Newman Street. She was the School's first female student, and her fellow pupils included Solomon J. Solomon, Edmund Blair Leighton (see lot 9), and T.C. Gotch. Three years later she graduated to the Royal Academy Schools, where among her contemporaries were Margaret Dicksee, Arthur Hacker, Stanhope Forbes, Henry La Thangue, Ernest Normand, Solomon J. Solomon again, and the sculptor Alfred Gilbert. Her teachers included the veteran W.P Frith, Frank Dicksee, the elder brother of her friend Margaret, Hubert von Herkomer, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who influenced her strongly for a time.
She began to exhibit in 1879, showing a small landscape at the Society of British Artists. The following year she sent work to the Dudley Gallery, and in 1881 she made her debut at the Royal Academy with a portrait, Miss Warman. The RA remained her principal place of exhibition for thirty-eight years, although she also supported the Grosvenor Gallery, the New Gallery, the Institute of Painters in Oil-Colours, and other bodies. Her work embraced portraits, landscapes, literary subjects and eighteenth-century genre scenes à la Marcus Stone, but she saw herself primarily as a painter of classical themes, often carried out on a considerable scale and generally with a strong emphasis on the female nude. This essentially Victorian tradition she was to maintain tenaciously well into the twentieth century.
In 1884 Rae married her fellow RA student Ernest Normand, and the following year they joined the artistic community, dominated by Sir Frederic Leighton, G.F. Watts and other luminaries, in the Holland Park area of Kensington. Leighton, who of course was President of the RA and embodied the Victorian art establishment, became the couple's hero. He took a personal interest in their progress, profoundly influenced their treatment of classical subjects, and ensured that, like him, they contributed to the murals executed for the Royal Exchange in the City of London. Rae's painting, The Charities of Sir Richard Whittington, was eventually completed in 1900.
This was only one example of Rae's considerable success during these years. Her Euridice had won medals in international exhibitions in Paris and Chicago, while Ophelia was bought for the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, in 1890. This year, however, both she and Normand suffered a crisis of confidence when their pictures were badly hung at the Royal Academy, and they decided to seek further instruction at the Académie Julian in Paris. This may seem surprising, given that they were already well established artists while Rae was a headstrong and independent personality, but no doubt they were influenced by the fact that so many of their contemporaries had enjoyed a Parisian training. At all events, that summer found them working in the French capital under Benjamin-Constant and Jules Lefèvre. They then went on to spend some weeks painting en plein air at Grez, the village near Barbizon which had been an inspirational centre for young artists of all nationalities since the early 1870s.
On their return to London, the couple were dismayed to find that Leighton strongly disapproved of Rae's latest work, which had become more 'impressionistic' under the influence of Paris and Grez. In 1892 they decided to leave the rather claustrophobic world of Holland Park and moved to Norwood in south-east London. There in a specially constructed studio, complete with a 'glass house' condusive to open air effects, Rae completed Psyche before the Throne of Venus, a ten-foot long canvas which appeared at the RA in 1894 and was bought by the wealthy mining engineer George McCulloch, entering his great collection in Queen's Gate. For some years prior to this Rae had abandoned classical subjects, but the success Psyche, which she regarded as her masterpiece, led her to return to her favourite genre, many examples of which followed. A visit to Italy in 1896, surprisingly enough her first, proved a great stimulus. In 1905 she was the subject of a monograph by Arthur Fish. It is full of inacuracies, but remains the most substantial source of information about her life and work.
In 1910, five years too late to be mentioned by Fish, the present picture appeared at the Royal Academy. Painted when the artist was fifty, it epitomises her style; the classical theme, the ambitious scale, the emphasis on the female nude and the stylistic synthesis between academic form and 'impressionistic' handling, are all typical. Hylas, whose story is told by Theocritus, was a handsome Greek youth who acted as servant and companion to Hercules during the expedition of the Argonauts to capture the Golden Fleece. When the party made landfall one evening, he was sent to find fresh water, and came to a spring where the Naiads, or waternymphs, were bathing. Captivated by his beauty, they dragged him into the water, and he was never seen again.
The subject had been memorably treated by J.W. Waterhouse in one of his finest works, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1897 (fig.1). Rae would certainly have known this picture, and there are obvious similarities between Waterhouse's version and hers, although characteristically she opts for a larger canvas and a more complex design. She must also have been aware of another work which dealt with the theme of nymphs, or, in this case, a mermaid, dragging a young man down to a watery death, namely Burne-Jones's Depths of the Sea (private collection). This picture had appeared at the RA in 1886, being the only work the artist ever showed at Burlington House. However, while it adds to the iconographical context of Rae's picture, in terms of composition and psychology it exist in a different world.
Despite its size, Hylas and the Water Nymphs seems to have attracted no critical comment when it was exhibited. As reviewers often noted, literary subject pictures were becoming increasingly rare on the Academy's walls, while critics for their part were not only writing much shorter reviews than they had done during the Victorian heyday but tended to reserve their comments for works which represented more realistic and seemingly advanced trends. For all this, the picture found a good home, being bought by Rae's patrons Sir Alfred and Lady Newton and installed at Weycroft Hall, their country house near Axminster in Devon. It seems likely that Rae had met the Newtons through her work for the Royal Exchange, since Sir Alfred had been Lord Mayor of London in 1899. That year she had exhibited a portrait of their son, H.K. Newton, at the New Gallery. A likeness of Lady Newton (illustrated in Fish, facing p.90) was shown at the RA the following year, and one of Sir Alfred himself would appear there in 1914. Hylas and the Water Nymphs remained at Weycroft Hall until a house sale was held in October 1988. The picture was the star lot of the sale.