In his 1842 ballad, The Lady of Shalott, the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) fashioned a tragic heroine who records scenes and events during King Arthur’s reign in a woven tapestry, but who must do so only by viewing reflections in a mirror, because of an unnamed curse. The poem served as a lasting inspiration for the painter William Holman Hunt, who in 1848 was one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which sought to repudiate the artificiality of academic art by following the stylistic precepts that had guided early Italian artists.
Hunt, who worked and reworked this picture over a decade, finishing it with studio assistance just before going blind, explained that the Lady of Shalott was to “weave her record, not as one mixing in the world…but a being sitting alone; in her isolation she is charged to see life with a mind supreme and elevated in judgment.” In his extraordinarily complex conception, the Lady’s chamber is decorated with emblems of devotion—with the Virgin and Child in one of the roundels and Hercules in the other. Her weaving represents Sir Galahad presenting the Holy Grail to King Arthur, while the bas-relief of the ceiling depicts female spirits guiding and protecting the planets. As the handsome Sir Lancelot passes on horseback, the Lady yields to temptation and stares out her window. Having looked at the real world rather than its reflection in a mirror, she unleashes the curse that ultimately destroys her. The violence wrought by her recognition of passion—her gazing directly upon Lancelot as he rides toward Camelot—animates the composition. The mirror shatters, the doves flee, the lamp is extinguished, her hair billows upward, and her tapestry unravels explosively to ensnare her. According to the deeply religious artist, his painting represented “the failure of a human soul towards its accepted responsibility.” Hunt also understood The Lady of Shalott as a metaphor for the duty of an artist to maintain some distance from reality, so as to protect his or her vocation.
An elaborate frame of the artist’s own design reinforces the ominous theme of the picture. The columns are ringed with prickly briar, the crown has Pandora’s box, and the base, an urn for the Lady’s ashes.
William Holman Hunt
The Lady of Shalott, c. 1890-1905
Oil on canvas
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1961.470