Autonomy in John William Waterhouse’s Interpretation of “The Lady of Shalott”

Essay by Haylee Kopfensteiner

Art by Aiza Bragg

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” has inspired countless artistic interpretations. One such interpretation is John William Waterhouse’s 1894 painting The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot. While a popular way of reading Tennyson’s poem is to view the Lady of Shalott as a symbol for the struggle of an artist to balance their lived experiences with their ability to create artwork, Waterhouse’s painting advocate’s for the Lady’s own autonomy as more than a symbolic piece of art. This essay will look at the visual aspects of Waterhouse’s painting to see how they are influenced by the “Lady of Shalott,” as well as discourse on agency in the Victorian era and Tennyson’s work as a whole. By doing so it is possible to see how The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot advocates for a reading of “The Lady of Shalott” that highlights the Lady’s wish for self-determination. 

It is first important to understand how the Lady of Shalott is viewed as art within the poem. As the subject of both a poem and a painting the Lady is a female figure who is being described by a male poet, a male character, and a male painter. She is defined only by her aesthetic value, that is, her ability to be a beautiful symbol of an artist’s struggle to participate fully in the outside world and dedicate themselves to creation. Within the poem, the Lady is constantly observed for what she creates. When the Lady sings, Tennyson’s descriptions focus on the listener’s experience of hearing the song instead of seeing her perform, he states that: “Only Reapers . . ./Hear a song that echoes cheerly” (Tennyson 69), “They heard her singing her last song” (Tennyson 74). The Lady becomes a disembodied voice, a song and piece of art instead of a person. And when the spectators see her dead body in Camelot “Lancelot mused a little space;/He said, “She has a lovely face;/God in his mercy lend her grace,” (Tennyson 75).

In focusing on her beauty, Lancelot values her based not on the fact that she is a person who has tragically lost her life, but as something to be looked at because of her “lovely” feminine face. When discussing definitions of femininity and masculinity in the Victorian era Shaw quotes John Berger in saying that “’the spectator in front of the picture . . . is assumed to be a man’; nudes in paintings, like Tennyson’s women, are ‘offering up [their] femininity as the surveyed’” (qtd. in Shaw 227). Interestingly, the title of the painting, which says that the Lady of Shalott is looking at Lancelot, implies that Lancelot is standing on the outside of the painting, in the place of the viewer, looking back at the Lady. The audience becomes a symbol for the objectifying male gaze in much of the same way that the Lady becomes a symbol for an artist. Waterhouse’s painting presents a Lady who is aware of this male objectification and actively challenges it. 

The key to Waterhouse’s representation of the Lady of Shalott’s agency is her body language. Drawing inspiration from William Holman Hunt’s illustration, Waterhouse’s Lady is looking up from under her brow with stern gaze, a mouth turned down into a frown. But as opposed to looking up to the side of the frame, Waterhouse’s Lady looks out of the painting directly at the viewer. This is both unsettling and highly effective. By looking at the painting’s audience with such an intense and unwelcoming facial expression, the Lady makes clear her discomfort at being stared at like an object. As well, the Lady of Shalott seems to walk toward the viewer, enacting the moment in the poem when she takes control of her life and takes “three paces thro’ the room,” (Tennyson 72) to look at Lancelot. It is as though she is protesting the invasion of her privacy by walking toward the viewer objectifying her to scold them, yet is still challenging them to continue looking. When discussing Hunt’s illustration of the Lady of Shalott, Abigail Joseph refers to the Lady’s fierce agency (Joseph 184) and describes her gaze as “defiant” (Joseph 189). These same descriptions of fierce agency fit Waterhouse’s Lady, and when combined with her act of looking out of the painting at the viewer, only emphasizes and increases the intensity with which the Lady protests her objectification. 

To further the sense of discomfort created by the painting, Waterhouse highlights how the Lady’s surroundings show the effect being made into art has on her. The background of the painting is dark and dull to emulate the “Four gray walls, and four gray towers,” (Tennyson 68) described in the poem. In “The Lady of Shalott” and The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, these colours create a dreary, desolate, and deeply unhappy environment in which the Lady is forced to stay. These colour choices also obscure much of the detail in the background, forcing one to look at the glowing Lady in white. The threads of the loom that are tangled around the Lady’s legs are also dull colours that blend into her surroundings. They conflict with Tennyson’s description of “A magic web with colours gay,” (Tennyson 69) and highlight the way that being made to work at her loom and being constantly observed as a symbol for an artist traps her. The threads make her unable to escape the tower, along with the painting, and the male gaze placed on her. In describing other visual interpretations of Tennyson’s confined women, Perzyńska states that “the female figure dominates the picture” and says that Hunt’s interpretation of the Lady is “claustrophobic” (64) in a similar way. The same effect is seen in Waterhouse’s interpretation. Through the representation of the Lady taking up so much room in the painting that she is forced to hunch over. Much like the contrasting colours, her large, cramped presence forces the viewer to focus on the Lady’s protests. The audience is confronted by the fact that they are complicit in her imprisonment in the place where her privacy is being encroached upon and she cannot live the life she wishes.

Throughout the Victorian Era there were many ways in which autonomy could be achieved. In his article, Fessenbecker describes two popular but opposing views of autonomy. He first describes the professional model of agency wherein “people are only truly free of their private selves and therefore autonomous if they devote themselves to ends that are willed by the social organism” (Fessenbecker 521). This philosophy is seen in both Waterhouse’s painting and Tennyson’s poem through the act of making the Lady work tirelessly “by night and day,” (Tennyson 69) not for her own joy, but so that others may gaze upon her and try to discover the answer to the artist’s dilemma. Fessenbecker goes on to explain how the aesthetic philosophy of autonomy is achieved through acting on desires equally. Doing so allows one to live their life as a work of art. When paraphrasing Sartre’s metaphor, which compares painting to a fulfilled autonomous life, Fessenbecker states: “the form that will give ‘coherence’ to the painting emerges over the course of the painting being created” (527). Under this view, a life of experiences is valued more than one of work for the greater good, which is exactly what the Lady seems to be after; the ability to choose where she can look and who she can love, instead of being trapped as an artwork. 

It is possible to interpret Waterhouse’s painting as the public checking in on the Lady to make sure that she is functioning as the symbol she is supposed to be, coming face to face with the Lady’s miserable conditions and fierce gaze. In this way, the painting advocates for the aesthete’s philosophy of autonomy, and the Lady’s ability to turn her life into art on her own terms by leaving the tower. Because the Lady takes the form of a painting, Waterhouse plays directly into Sartre’s metaphor. Just as the Lady of Shalott’s body language and facial expressions gain their meaning through the build up of Waterhouse’s brush strokes, the Lady’s desired autonomy is built up through her experiences of leaving the loom and tower.

Commenting on the way that agency is presented for the Lady of Shalott in the painting, Joseph Chadwick notes that “Privacy. . . is the social equivalent of the aesthetic condition of autonomy, as the association between femininity and art in ‘the Lady of Shalott’ demonstrates” (86). The Lady of Shalott is given no privacy from the male gaze that the audience of the painting adopts. It forces her to continue working for fear of losing the value she earns by being a beautiful piece of artwork that allows these viewers to puzzle out their questions. The constant gaze of the audience prevents her from making decisions. Chadwick writes that “When the Lady looks at Lancelot and sets the curse in motion, her privacy is publicized, her domesticity is dissolved, her femininity objectified.” (92). This is the exact moment that Waterhouse represents in his painting. His painting makes public the moment the Lady asserts herself by choosing not to work and be objectified. Stockstill argues that by choosing to leave the tower, the Lady of Shalott is refusing to participate in the objectification that keeps her working as an allegory for an artist (15). The Lady’s body language and determined facial expression show that she is attempting to walk out of both the tower and the painting where this form of the male gaze is forced upon her. 

What’s more is that the Lady of Shalott succeeds in embodying the aesthetic philosophy of autonomy, albeit with a tragic ending. Her act choosing to look out the window down to Lancelot and Camelot set her death in motion. Both Stockstill and Chadwick equate her singing one last song as she sends her dead body into Camelot for its citizens to witness, to an artistic performance piece aimed at making the world aware of the harm their objectification has caused (Stockstill 16, Chadwick 94). The Lady’s short life and fight for self-determination becomes art in itself, as it is immortalized by artists such as Waterhouse. 

Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot allows viewers to
interpret Tennyson’s poem as the Lady of Shalott’s fight for for autonomy and separation from
Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot allows viewers to interpret Tennyson’s poem as the Lady of Shalott’s fight for for autonomy and separation from her position as a symbol of the artist. Waterhouse’s choice to represent the Lady as fierce and assertive yet trapped in an unfulfilling place by the viewer, creates a type of protest against the of being continually made into an artwork. The medium and visual aspects address common theories of agency from the Victorian era and advocate for the Lady’s ability to create her own experiences. Waterhouse’s painting ultimately invites us to think of the Lady of Shalott as more than just the subject of a poem or a painting, but as a fully fleshed out character with complex emotions. Ultimately, the painting makes its viewers think about ways in which we as consumers of art and readers of poetry, are forcing characters into places they may not belong.

Works Cited

Chadwick, Joseph. “A Blessing and a Curse: The Poetics of Privacy in Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of
Shalott.’” Critical Essays on Alfred Lord Tennyson, edited by Herbert F. Tucker, G.K
Hall, Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993, pp. 83-99.
Fessenbecker, Patrick. “Varieties of Self-Realization: Art, Work, and the Self in Late Victorian
England.” Modern Philology: Critical and Historical Studies in Literature, Medieval
Through Contemporary, Vol. 117, No. 4, 2020, pp. 515-539.
Joseph, Abigail. “‘Impressions of Weird Fate’: Revision and Crisis in The Lady of
Shalott.” Journal of Victorian Culture, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2017, pp. 183-203.
Perzyńska, Maria. “Images of Confinement: The Isolated Woman in Tennyson and the
Pre-Raphaelites.” The Central and The Peripheral: Studies in Literature and
Culture, edited by Paweł Schreiber, Joanna Malicka, and Jakub Lipski, Cambridge
Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp. 63-69.
Shaw, Marion. “The Contours of Manliness and the Nature of Women.’” Critical Essays on
Alfred Lord Tennyson, edited by Herbert F. Tucker, G.K Hall, Maxwell Macmillan
Canada, 1993, pp. 219-233
Stockstill, Ellen J. “Gender Politics in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott.’” The
Explicator, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2012, pp. 13-16.
Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” Poems, Edward Moxen, 1857, pp. 67-75.
Waterhouse, John William. The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot. 1894, Leeds Art Gallery,