The Victorians revered William Shakespeare: at least 800 editions of his collected works, many illustrated, were published in Britain during the 19th Century. The painter John William Waterhouse surely grew up reading Shakespeare’s writings in their original form, and also popular analyses by such commentators as Anna Jameson. In her bestselling volume, Characteristics of Women (1832), Jameson positioned Shakespeare’s female characters as role models or cautionary emblems, allowing these fictional personalities to become compellingly vivid in her readers’ sympathetic imaginations.
In 1875, for his second appearance in the Royal Academy’s all-crucial Summer Exhibition, 25-year old Waterhouse submitted Miranda, a scene from The Tempest in which the maiden watches the doomed ship on the distant horizon. Twelve years later, Waterhouse numbered among the 21 prominent artists commissioned by the popular illustrated weekly The Graphic to participate in ‘The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines’. His scene of Cleopatra sulking on a leopard-skin-covered divan was reproduced in the magazine and then in portfolio editions of varying quality. Waterhouse went on to paint three scenes of Ophelia (1889, 1894, and 1910) — each distinct in composition, yet captivating in emotional power. Given the enormous affection with which his contemporaries regarded Juliet— indeed, Jameson wrote, 'All Shakespeare’s women, being essentially women, either love or have loved, or are capable of loving; but Juliet is love itself' — it is surprising that Waterhouse depicted her only once.
He exhibited the present painting at London’s progressive New Gallery in 1898, the same summer he showed two larger and more compositionally challenging canvases (Flora and the Zephyrs and Ariadne) at the Royal Academy. This was common practice for Waterhouse: a year earlier he had sent the single-figure Mariana in the South to the New Gallery, while the Academy displayed the multi-figure Hylas and the Nymphs. Like his peers, he often did this because the more spectacular scenes would attract higher prices and keener reviews at the Academy, but the prestigious New Gallery was a reliable venue to sell more modestly-scaled pictures to clients with marginally smaller budgets. This is not to suggest that the single-figure pictures are uninteresting; in fact, the appearance of Juliet after so many years out of sight offers fresh opportunities to appreciate its beautiful colour harmonies and psychological incisiveness.
Here we see a lovely girl wearing a richly-coloured gown that closely resembles Mariana’s in its cut. Endowed with unusually curly hair (for Waterhouse), Juliet grasps her luxurious blue necklace nervously. She is presented in the full profile perfected by Italian Renaissance artists; for most of the 15th Century, privileged maidens ready to be married off (or recently wed) were depicted in just this pose, aloof from the viewer’s gaze. From around 1480, however, female sitters began to look out toward us. Waterhouse does not go quite that far, yet Juliet does give us a sidelong glance, as if she suspects that Romeo, or possibly the citizens of Verona (all invisible here), are watching her closely. Waterhouse had successfully depicted this intriguing effect in his 1894 painting, Field Flowers, and would do so again in the early 1900s with Windflowers, Boreas, and Veronica.
This subtle glance is insightful because Juliet is—literally—trapped in an impossible situation, unable to address it head on. Waterhouse underscores the girl’s predicament by positioning her within an unyielding grid of hard architectural forms: the massive brick footbridge and wall behind her, the grey parapet below her, and even the band-like blue river that separates her from the townscape beyond. The illusion of Juliet walking slowly along the river is enhanced by Waterhouse’s decision to cut off the masonry arch visible at top left, as well as the near end of the footbridge (bottom right). Had he painted these forms in their entirety, the scene would become more symmetrical and more static; here, instead, we can imagine Juliet gliding slowly toward the left, glancing warily in our direction.
An early owner of Juliet (possibly the first) was the barrister Sir Frederick M. Fry, who also owned Waterhouse’s 1908 version of Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May and his 1909 version of Lamia. At the artist’s 1926 estate sale at Christie’s, Fry also purchased two additional works (A Courtyard, Venice and The Easy Chair). A leader and historian of London’s Merchant Taylors Company, Fry was close enough to Waterhouse that he attended the artist’s funeral in 1917.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.