Tristram and Isolde by John William Waterhouse

  • John William Waterhouse brings the Celtic myth of Tristram and Isolde to life in this masterpiece
  • Displaying a story of forbidden love, this oil on canvas exudes a romantic sensuality
  • Waterhouse was a Pre-Raphaelite master, renowned for his brilliant color and technical precision
  • Created in the final year of the artist's life, it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1917
  • Get complete item description here
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John William Waterhouse, R.A.
1849-1917 I British

Tristram and Isolde

Signed and dated “J.W. Waterhouse/1916” (lower left)
Oil on canvas

The Pre-Raphaelites sought to perfectly render stories from literature and history with tremendous accuracy. Tristram and Isolde is based on the famed medieval Celtic tale. It tells the story of Isolde, the beautiful daughter of the King of Ireland, who heals the injured hero Tristram. Tristram’s uncle, King Mark, learns of the Isolde’s beauty and asks Tristram to bring her back so he could wed her. Viewers of Waterhouse’s scene in 1916 would, of course, already have known this story by heart.

The two protagonists fall in love on their journey and intend to drink poison rather than be separated by the looming nuptials. Instead, the two unknowingly drink a love potion meant for the king and his new bride, and thus fall even more madly in love. Isolde still fulfills her duty and marries King Mark, but the princess cannot bear being separated from Tristram and begins an adulterous affair with him. The lovers are found out and separated before dying of grief, mistakenly believing they will never see each other again. The tale influenced greats from William Shakespeare with his Romeo and Juliet to Richard Wagner, whose 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde put the romantic tragedy to music. The ubiquity of the famed narrative of forbidden love required the utmost precision in execution, and Waterhouse gallantly rose to the task, choosing to capture the very moment in which the paramours drink the elixir that seals their fate.

Despite the post-Victorian, exceptionally conservative nature of this period, the painting exudes both sensuality and romantic eroticism. Isolde leans towards Tristram in a trancelike state, already under the spell of the love potion in her grasp that will lead to the lovers’ tragic demise. The soft femininity of her billowing dress and veil stands in stark contrast to the angular manliness of Tristram’s armor. Despite his bold stride and hardened exterior, the tender expression remains as the two’s hands touch. The brilliant color palette imbues the work with a lifelike vibrancy, leaving the viewer spellbound. With his delicate painting, Waterhouse has frozen in time the climax of a beloved tale and the moment of sensuous anticipation.

Born in Rome in 1849 to British parents, John William Waterhouse began his artistic career in the Royal Academy of Art, where he was enrolled as an academic painter. After seeing an exposition in by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood secret society, which rejected the Academy’s infatuation with Neoclassicism, Waterhouse embraced their aesthetic principles and subject matter. His prowess and technical skill in this endeavor led him to be elected a member of the Royal Academy, the very institution that his predecessors disavowed. It is for these romantic paintings of women in classical mythology and Arthurian legend that he is most praised.

Completed during his final battle with liver cancer before his passing in 1917, Tristram and Isolde presents the final form of Waterhouse’s artistic maturity and remains one of his crowning achievements in painting. The artist’s own affection for this work is clear, as it is certain he approved the painting for exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts mere months after his death. A museum-quality piece with remarkable provenance, this stunning oil on canvas has been widely exhibited, and it also once graced the significant collection of Sir Rod Stewart. Other works from Waterhouse’s oeuvre reside in important museums worldwide, including the Tate, the Royal Academy of Arts and the National Gallery of Victoria.

Dated 1916

Canvas: 42" high x 31" wide
Frame: 55" high x 43 1/2" wide

The Artist’s studio sale; Christie’s, London, 23 July 1926, lot 28 (218 gns to W.W. Sampson).
Private Collection, UK, 1948 and by descent to
His son, 1981.
Sir Rod Stewart, O.B.E., by 28 June 1999.
Fred and Sherry Ross, New Jersey, by January 2003.
Private collection
M.S. Rau, New Orleans

Bristol, Royal West of England Academy, 1916, no. 442.
London, Royal Academy, Summer Exhibition, 1917, no. 111.
Groningen, Groninger Museum, London, Royal Academy, and Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, J.W. Waterhouse 1849–1917: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite, 14 December 2008 - 7 February 2010, no. 63.

A. Hobson, The Art and Life of J W Waterhouse RA 1849–1917, London, 1980, pp. 137, 192-93, cat. 219.
A. Jarman (ed.), Royal Academy Exhibitors 1905–1970, London, 1987, p. 224, no 111.
A. Hobson, J W Waterhouse, London, 1989, p. 116, illus., p. 119, no. 89.
P. Trippi, J W Waterhouse, London, 2002, pp. 222–4.
P. Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse 1849–1917: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite (exh. cat.), London, 2008, pp. 21, 186, 190, 194–95, no. 63.
Tristram and Isolde by John William Waterhouse
Period: 1816-1918
Origin: England
Type: Paintings
Depth: 3.0 Inches
Width: 43.5 Inches
Height: 55.0 Inches
Style: Pre-Raphaelite
Canvas Width: 31 Inches
Canvas Height: 42 Inches
Tristram and Isolde by John William Waterhouse
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