In 1892, J.W. Waterhouse signed and dated a small oil sketch of a mermaid combing her hair (private collection, New York). Its date confirms that this motif fascinated him for at least eight years, as it was only in 1900 that he finally completed the large A Mermaid as his Diploma Work for the Royal Academy's collection. A Perfectionist and chronically tardy, Waterhouse agonized over the details of A Mermaid because he knew that it would represent him forever in the Academy's collection. Surely he would be pleased that today it is recognized internationally, primarily because it features an iconic example of what has come to be known as 'the Waterhouse girl'-a pale-skinned, rosy-cheeked redhead holding her hair and gazing dreamily into the distance.
The present oil sketch of this girl almost certainly dates from the same period of 1892-1900, most probably 1892-95. In the recent Waterhouse museum retrospective, it hung alongside a similarly sized oil sketch in which the hands are suggested with cursory strokes (now in a private New York collection). Together these sketches offered visitors important insights into how Waterhouse built up his surfaces, always focusing on the face and neck first. In view of their subject and composition, both sketches were surely created in preparation for not only A Mermaid but also other pictures Waterhouse was developing in the early to mid 1890s, including La Belle Dame Sans Merci of 1893 (Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt), Ophelia of 1894 (private collection), and Hylas and the Nymphs of 1896 (Manchester Art Gallery). In all of these, a young woman holds her hair in full or three-quarter profile. More importantly, the consistency of motif and pose underscores the symbolic interconnections that Waterhouse perceived among these nature-women: whether their stories derive from Keats, Shakespeare, Ovid, or folk traditions, these girls are both enchanted and enchanting, due in large measure to the erotic possibilities of their untrammelled hair.
Waterhouse apparently painted alone, working only with his models. At the start of his career, modeling was considered perilously close to prostitution since it opened girls to exploitation and raised questions about their morals. By 1900, models had gained respectability and were often perceived as artistic muses rather than employees. Waterhouse often recorded the names of the models he drew in his sketchbooks; most were women, and their addresses reveal that they came from neighbourhoods across London.
Perpetuating an academic tradition promoted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, founding president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Waterhouse transcended the particularities of individual models to present his own idealized, instantly recognizable type, varied primarily by hair colour. Older contemporaries such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Albert Moore had already devised their own types, and Waterhouse's approach sustained this tradition. He relied on two or three principal models during each phase of his career. Attention has focused on the red-haired woman who appears, visibly maturing but always beautiful, in more than 60 paintings, beginning with The Toilet (1889), encompassing the artist's heyday years with such masterworks as Ophelia (1894), St. Cecilia (1895), Ariadne (1898), and A Mermaid (1900), and continuing through to the canvases Waterhouse left unfinished at his death in 1917. Scholars' search for her name has proven fruitless; the closest 'hit' thus far relates to the Yale Center for British Art's drawing for the head of Waterhouse's 1905 Lamia (inscribed 'Miss Muriel Foster'), but this line of inquiry has reached an impasse. Thus the identity of this model remains a mystery.
More intriguing than her name is the question of whether the red-haired 'Waterhouse girl' functioned as a muse. Given her three-decade relationship with the artist, the answer is almost certainly affirmative. Once she is firmly identified, her life story may shed light on Waterhouse's choice of subjects. What we can say definitively now is that this girl possesses a delicate frame, pale skin, red lips, and cheeks that flush easily to signify intense Romantic feeling. This 'English rose' type is enticing to many viewers, yet somehow chaste and beyond mere sexuality, an ethereal quality that can potentially make her even more appealing. Waterhouse surely derived the ethereal aspect from Burne-Jones, whose pale female type seems not quite of this world, and the hot-blooded aspect from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose type was often accused of being too earthy. His successful interweaving of these legacies is just one of many ways in which Waterhouse can be understood as a 'modern Pre-Raphaelite.'