As Europe begins to open up to travelers once again, the contemplation of cultural treasures awaits is more exciting than ever. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is personal encounters with great works of art – which I have collected in a book called Europe’s 100 best masterpieces. This is one of my favourites:
This woman’s aching face immediately makes it clear that – despite its sumptuous beauty – it doesn’t tell a happy story. Lady Shalott knows she is floating on the river to finish.
English artist John William Waterhouse depicts the dramatic climax of a legendary tale. The Lady of Shalott had spent her whole life locked in a castle near Camelot for King Arthur, forbidden even to look outside under the weight of death. She can only observe the world indirectly through the reflection in her mirror. But one day, the handsome knight Lancelot walked in. She was so in love that she broke the rules and looked straight at him. Now she’s followed his tracks and boarded a boat, launched the mooring chain, and sets off into the unknown to find her lover, whatever the cost.
The riverside landscapes – reeds, inky waters, dark weather, even birds in flight – conjure up the dreary beauty of the moment. Mrs. Shalott is burning fiercely, her white dress and red hair shining from the gloomy background. Waterhouse focused on juicy details, such as the lady’s soft hair, pearl necklace, slightly curly dress, and cupped hands. For the lady’s face, he painted his wife. The colors – red, green, and blue – are as bright and clear, luminous and glowing as stained-glass windows.
The entire landscape looks medieval, yet it was painted during the industrial age when Britain was leading the world in new technologies such as electricity and trains. As Victorian Britain scrambled forward, its artists looked to the past. Waterhouse was inspired by a group of British artists called the Pre-Raphaelian Brotherhood, who celebrated painting medieval girls and legendary lovers with heartbreaking beauty.
Pre-Raphaelites disliked exaggeration. So – even in the face of great tragedy, high emotions, and moral dilemmas – this lady hardly raises any eyebrows. But its surroundings speak volumes. Night falls, foreshadowing her dark fate. The first leaf of autumn fell, and landed near her thigh. It brings the lustrous fabric we woven in captivity, with scenes from the comforting world of illusion I once knew. Now she is guided only by a dim lantern on the front, a small cross to fortify her faith, and three fragile candles – only one of which is still burning.
Victorians of all ages knew this romantic legend (which was also a bestselling poem by Tennyson). Everyone can read their own meanings in the painting: the lady has chosen to leave her safe but deceptive life in pursuit of the truth. She follows her heart despite the risks. She risks finding intimacy, love, and sex even at the cost of losing herself in the process. The expression on her face shows a mixture of fear, hope, vulnerability and the realization that – whatever happens – this is her destiny.
She let the chain go. Then Tennyson wrote, “Like a daring fortune-teller in ecstasy,” she “goes down across the dim stretch of river.” In legend, the boat of Our Lady of Shalotte headed downstream and washed ashore in Camelot, where Lancelot saw and mourned for her. I have given up on seeing the world as it is.