The plays of Shakespeare were among the greatest sources of inspiration for John William Waterhouse, whose depictions of Ophelia are world famous. The present picture was Waterhouse’s first depiction of a heroine from Shakespeare and only his second exhibit at the Royal Academy. The painting was hailed as a major rediscovery in 2004 when it was found in a private collection in Scotland, having been lost for 131 years. It was a known painting and reproduced in Anthony Hobson’s seminal book on the artist published in 1989 but the image was reversed and in black and white and conveyed little of the quiet beauty of the picture.
Miranda depicts a scene of the artist's own invention which precedes the opening of Shakespeare's play. On a sandy beach, strewn with seashells and seaweed Miranda, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Prospero, sits alone and gazes out over the waves, her eyes fixed on the far horizon where the sails of a ship can be seen. Most artists painted Miranda witnessing the destruction of the ship carrying her eventual lover Ferdinand. Much later in his life this was the scene that Waterhouse himself painted on two occasions. However as a young man, he chose to depict a more unusual and more touching subject of the pensive Miranda awaiting the ship on the island to which she has been exiled for twelve years, as the ominous storm-clouds gather.
It is curious that Miranda, a maiden from a play written in 1611, is depicted wearing a toga and bandeaux and perhaps the picture is closer to depictions of the classical heroine Ariadne, although she does not seem distraught that Theseus has callously abandoned her. Ariadne was certainly a subject that Waterhouse painted later in his career (in 1898, private collection) but he used it as an opportunity to depict a tantalisingly vulnerable woman sleeping on a terrace above the sea. The costume in Miranda can be explained by an examination of Waterhouse's early style, which in the 1870s was almost entirely Classical in spirit. Pictures like In the Peristyle (Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery) which he had exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1874, reflect the influence of the pervading fashion for Neo-Classicism as a girl feeds doves in a setting or marble and flowers. Sleep and his Half-brother Death (private collection) had been Waterhouse’s first exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1874 and depicted a Pompeian scene loosely depicting Thanatos and Hypnos. This was followed by a scene of Greco-Roman lovers entitled Whispered Words of 1875 (private collection) which was bought by the great engineer Sir John Aird who was famous for building the Aswan Dam and moving the Crystal Palace to Sydenham. Whispered Words accompanied Miranda at the Royal Academy exhibition and it was suggested by Anthony Hobson that they both depict the same model, thought to have been Waterhouse’s sister Jessie, whose name appears in a poem that accompanied Whispered Words. The unifying thread between Sleep and his Half Brother Death, Whispered Words and Miranda is the highly personal interpretation of the subjects which suggested scenes that the artist interpreted in a poetic way rather than slavishly rendered. This was described well in 1886 by James A. Blaikie who interviewed Waterhouse and described Miranda as ‘... in no sense a dramatic illustration of Shakespeare, but ... rather, for all its pictorial effect, a purely academic study of the figure, set forth in a spacious aerial medium of broad, soft evening light suffusing sea and sky. In a foreground of sea-shore Miranda, lightly draped, is seated on a rock, watching with clasped hands and partly averted face the brave ship tossing in the offing; the blue sea breaks unheeded on the sand, her eyes being wholly absorbed by the vessel, which is yet to suffer through the magic of Prospero.’
Hobson speculated that the original title of the painting was Waiting, 'a title suggested by the writing on the wooden support in Mrs Somerville’s photograph of the painting'. However, the inscription does not appear to be in Waterhouse's handwriting and was probably written by someone who had not known the artist when this picture was painted.
It is interesting that one of Waterhouse's last paintings depicted Miranda again and is typical of the artist who returned time and time again to favourite subjects to be re-interpreted. The picture entitled Miranda - The Tempest (private collection) which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917, depicts the ship-wreck scene. It is a very different painting, full of anguish, tempestuous weather and high drama and in stark contrast to the calm restraint of the 1875 picture. The picture exhibited in 1917 and a further smaller version exhibited posthumously by Waterhouse's widow perhaps convey the turmoil of WWI, the heroine on the shore powerless to help those who are in peril perhaps has echoes of sentiments felt by the women of Britain at this time.
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