The graceful rhythms of Waterhouse's drawings charge them with an immediacy and sensuality sometimes lacking in his fully-fledged oil paintings. Herein we can appreciate both confident draughtmanship and narrative beauty, as we see the distinctive Waterhouse face - nimbly but confidently outlined - framed by the sweeping contours that define her body.
The present drawing is a study for Waterhouse's Royal Academy diploma piece, The Mermaid (1901) (see Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, London, 2002, no. 92). In the finished composition the mermaid sits upon a pebbly strand, her silken tail coiled around her body, a shell full of watery booty - pearls, sparkling things - propped before her. She weaves her hair, and seems to be singing; her eyes bespeak of dreamy and faraway thoughts. In this drawing Waterhouse captures that expression; though the girl's face has a sharpness and intelligence that is perhaps modified in the painting. Her lips are closed, whereas they are parted - as if in song - in the oil.
The Art Journal praised Waterhouse's exhibit:
'...the conception is charged with romance, the line with rhythm. The wistful-sad look of the fair mermaid...combing the dull-red hair ere she studs it with pearls...is potent in suggestion. It tells of human longings never to be satisfied...The chill of the sea lies ever on her heart; the endless murmur of waters is a poor substitute for the sound of human voices; never can this beautiful creature, troubled with emotion, experience on the one hand unawakened repose, on the other the joys of womanhood'. (Art Journal, 1901, p. 82).
Waterhouse's status as the artist who introduced the technical bravado of French realism to subjects derived from the English Romantic tradition is well-documented. In this drawing we register the conception of one of the most famous of those images.
A comparable drawing by Waterhouse, Study for the Danaïdes, was sold at Sotheby's, London, 13 June 2002, lot 30, £28,875.