Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Lady of Shalott and Me

When I look up from my computer monitor, I see a poster of this fabulous painting of the Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt. It's one of my favorite things.

The Story 
The painting was inspired by the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written in 1857. It tells the sad story of a lady imprisoned in a tower under a curse. We don't know exactly who she is, or how she came to be in this terrible predicament, but we sense she's done something very wrong.

From the poem we learn that the Lady is under a spell, forced to weave into a tapestry the life of the world outside her window, as reflected in her mirror. The yarn is going everywhere, as unruly and wild as her hair. The Lady is a (fiber) artist who can never be part of the world, never even look directly out the tower windows, or she will die. Who knows how long the weaving went on, but one day Sir Lancelot came riding by (you can see him in the painting), and you can guess what happened. The Lady was so overcome that she broke the spell and defied the curse by looking directly at him. Then the mirror cracked, the curse came upon her and she died. Somehow, the poem doesn't say, she wound up in a boat floating down to Camelot where Lancelot sees her, says she has a lovely face and says a prayer. Not a happy ending, but certainly in keeping with the Victorian conscience and its harsh judgments of women.

Interpreting the Painting
When you look at the painting, you can almost feel the tension. There's the struggle between life (sort of) and death, between an artificial world and the real world, between the Lady's artistic detachment as she works on the tapestry, and her longing for emotional involvement. There's quite a lot going on in this picture, and the more you examine it, the more interesting it becomes. Some say it's an allegory of a fallen woman who was lead astray and met a fate worse than death - to see the world, but not be part of it. Others say she represents the artist, or the place of women in society. What do I think? I think the painting is beautiful. I love its complexity and colors, and all its associations with people, stories and ideas. I don't need to pick any particular interpretation.

Other Versions of the Painting
Moxon Tennyson - 1857 
There are some things I know about Hunt's Lady, and other things that I want to sort out someday. He drew this sketch of her for the Moxon edition of Tennyson's poems that was published in 1857. He also may have painted more detailed versions in oil over the ensuing 50 years, with different symbolism in the background. The best known version is the one above with Greek symbolic figures. It was completed in 1905 when Hunt was 83, and so rickety that he needed help from Edward Robert Hughes. Somewhere there may be a Lady with medieval figures instead of Greeks, or Hunt may have painted over them. Apparently he worked on this painting off and on for decades. There's a tremendous difference between this first, much simpler Lady and the richly detailed final one.

Back to the Poem
Although Tennyson's poem isn't considered to be a literary masterpiece, it's been a powerful source of inspiration to painters and singers ever since it was published. The Lady has been painted many, many times, including three beautiful versions by John William Waterhouse, but Hunt's Lady is by far my favorite. In fact I love it so much, that about fifteen years ago I made a special trip to Hartford, CT where it hangs in the Wadsworth Atheneum, of all places, because it had such a hold on my imagination that I had to see it in person. I wasn't disappointed. The painting is HUGE - 74 x 57 inches, and just magnificent. I bought the poster at the gift shop and later had it framed.

The poem is a long one, but well worth reading, or even more fun, listening to. The celestial Loreena McKennitt set it to music several years ago, and Roger and I have had the good fortune to see and hear her perform it in concert - twice. Just remembering those nights gives me chills.  Here she is to sing it for you.

1 comment:

  1. Great post...I wasn't aware of either the painting or the painter before reading your post. Thanks...