Unseen by the public since 1926, the rediscovery of this glowing oil study is a welcome reminder of why J.W. Waterhouse was—and is—so admired as a master painter. A full-scale preparatory study for the finished version of Phyllis and Demophoön that he signed in 1905 and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1907, this canvas rewards careful viewers with many pleasures. With our eyes we appreciate its rich colouring and dynamic brushwork, while with our minds and hearts we experience a touching encounter, drawn from a classical source, that is quintessentially Waterhouse.
Examining a large, unfinished oil study like this affords us rare opportunities to admire Waterhouse’s deft draughtsmanship, particularly evident in the girl’s flesh and the boy’s face; the iconic red hair of his favourite female model; the delicate red and pink lake pigments he relished; the explosion of blossom that almost vibrates thanks to its thick impasto; the expressive zig-zagging of the tree branches; and the Italian pines, green grass, and blue sky—flecked with pinkish clouds—Waterhouse preferred in his final decade. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that no passage carries just one colour: Waterhouse applied touches of diverse hues everywhere, certain they would coalesce in viewers’ eyes as they backed away from the canvas.
As with his treatments of Ariadne (1898), Medea (1907), and Penelope (1912), Waterhouse consulted Ovid’s Heroides, a volume of poems recounting the ordeals that women endure through the actions (or inactions) of men. During his journey home from the Trojan War, the Greek hero Demophoön falls in love with Phyllis, daughter of the Thracian king. When he fails to keep his promise to return and marry her, Phyllis hangs herself. Fortunately, the gods take pity by transforming her into an almond tree. Demophoön finally returns and remorsefully embraces the barren tree, which suddenly sprouts the blossom seen here. Although Phyllis emerges to forgive her faithless lover, she cannot regain human form. Thanks to Waterhouse’s characteristic discretion, viewers grasp the powerful pathos of this reunion without having to witness Phyllis’s anguish or suicide. She gazes down intently, yet does not threaten, as she had done in Edward Burne-Jones’s widely noticed treatments of the story (1870 and 1882).
Phyllis and Demophoön underscores Waterhouse’s longstanding fascination with another of Ovid’s themes—metamorphoses—specifically the magical transformation of human beings into flowers, trees, and animals. Also evident here is Waterhouse’s close association of women with flowers, variously their beauty, inevitable decay, and function as vessels of new growth. These themes, along with the quintessentially Romantic one of unfulfilled love, were clearly on Waterhouse’s mind in the mid-1900s: at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1907, he exhibited both Phyllis and Demophoön and Isabella and the Pot of Basil (both in private collections), in which Keats’s heroine buries her murdered lover’s head in a plant she waters with her tears.
Unusually for Waterhouse, a range of preparatory drawings and oil studies have survived for Phyllis and Demophoön, underscoring his determination to maximize the scene’s aesthetic and emotional impact. Particularly intriguing is his decision—confirmed by this study and several pencil sketches now in the Victoria and Albert Museum—to reverse the composition. Here the tree appears on the left, with Phyllis gazing downward toward our right. In the version presented at the Academy, the composition is reversed. It is unclear why Waterhouse made this change, yet either way our attention remains riveted on the heartbreaking gaze exchanged by the lovers, a device Waterhouse had been refining since the masterpieces of the previous decade, notably Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896, (Manchester Art Gallery, fig. 1). In fact, this Demophoön was modelled by the same beardless youth who posed as Hylas, raising the possibility that Waterhouse worked from older drawings he had kept in his studio.
When the contents of Waterhouse’s St John’s Wood studio were dispersed by his widow at Christie’s in 1926, this was one of three full-scale oil studies for Phyllis and Demophoön offered (lots 21, 22, and 24). It is truly cause for celebration that this is the only one of the trio seen publicly since then. At some point thereafter, an owner cut away the lower half of the composition, yet the scene’s most essential components—the figures’ emotionally powerful reunion in an idyllic setting—have survived completely intact.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.