Ester Díaz Morillo is a PhD candidate in English Literary Studies at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Spain. Her doctoral research focuses on the study of the poetic language and how it can be translated, adapted or transferred into other languages or artistic means such as painting and music. You can find her on twitter @EsterDiazMo

Literature and art share an interrelation which has expanded throughout history, inspiring both authors and artists in what we call a sisterhood of arts. In that sense, here we will explore how John William Waterhouse translated John Keats’s poetry into a pictorial style which attests to the changes taking place in Victorian society regarding gender roles, reflecting female power and male’s fears towards it.

First we shall see “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, a ballad that tells the story of an enchantress who seduces a knight to his ruin, condemning him to wander forever. It was written by John Keats in 1819 and is an “early example of the 19th century fascination with the femme fatale”, a theme which will become a common topic by the end of the century[1]. This turn towards Keats’s “Belle Dame” reflects a change in society and culture. Waterhouse represented this story in painting in 1893, presenting a feminine seductiveness narrative.

In the claustrophobic atmosphere which surrounds this knight in full medieval armour, even the seductress’ hair encircles the knight’s neck as if choking him, bewitching him and leaving him after his encounter “palely loitering” (l. 2), a motif already used by Rossetti when he drew “La Belle Dame sans Merci” in 1855. The white flowers in the painting are daisies, symbols of innocence; although it may look like a contradiction, those white daises precisely stress how the Belle Dame presents herself as an innocent being, when, in fact, she is going to trap him.[2]

In contrast to the knight, she is full of warm colours, although her skin is paler. This young woman is, moreover, wearing a heart on her sleeve, a symbol which can be perhaps associated again to her efforts to appear innocent; Keats describes her looking at the knight “as she did love | And made sweet moan” (ll. 19-20), therefore, Waterhouse’s lady can remind us of the colloquial phrase “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve”, which would imply honesty in showing her emotions, so that, yet again, she would look sincere in her intentions. As a matter of fact, the knight looks impotent and mesmerised by the lady; his lance is by his side, a metaphor that Waterhouse will take again later in Lamia in order to emphasise female power over men.


La belle - waterhouse

La Belle Dame sans Merci by J. W. Waterhouse. Source:

As a matter of fact, this painting by Waterhouse seem to offer new interpretations which reflect its own sociohistorical periods and is very related to the renderings of Lamia, which we shall see below. It is interesting to observe how Waterhouse has concentrated on the seduction on the part of the woman, as if showing men’s fears and anxieties of female empowerment. This is an aspect further reinforced when we bear in mind the manner in which Keats describes the patriarchal order in which he saw in the dream the figures (king, princes, warriors), all subjected to the lady.

We should remember that in Victorian times there was a strong dichotomy in which women were categorised as either the “angel in the house”, the much celebrated topic of the homonymous poem by Coventry Patmore which praises a loving wife and devoted mother, or the “fallen woman”, a popular subject within Pre-Raphaelitism. This latter topic is connected with the loss of innocence on the part of the woman, focusing on how she is no longer pure, precipitating, therefore, her ruin and alienation from society. But women can also become aggressive and invert the roles of sexual dominance with the figure of the femme fatale, who is a woman who can manipulate men at will and does not submit to patriarchal order. The Belle Dame is, therefore, a perfect prototype of this femme fatale, since she possesses all the qualities cherished but also feared in this type of woman: a seductress full of sensuality and mystery, a woman actively in control of her life and sexuality.

For its part, Keats’s poem “Lamia”, also written in 1819, tells the story of how the god Hermes meets by chance Lamia in his search for a beautiful nymph. Lamia is trapped in the form of a serpent and they make a deal: she will reveal the nymph and, in return, the god will restore her beautiful human form so that she can find Lycius, a youth from Corinth. Waterhouse painted this theme in 1905 and again in 1909. In the first painting, Waterhouse portrays the encounter between Lamia and Lycius. His knight looks defenceless, for his helmet is by his side, his sword out of reach. He is enthralled in the lady’s gaze, entirely petrified by her stare. Waterhouse seems to have chosen to stress that gaze, as much as Keats emphasises the significance of the stares throughout his poem. We can see the snakeskin around her arm and her waist, which is the only visual hint to her true nature. This painting can remind observers of the previously analysed depiction of La Belle Dame sans Merci, for we can see that Waterhouse stresses the powerful and disarming gaze of the young lady.


In the second version, there is also snakeskin on Lamia’s lap, falling to her feet. Here, Lamia is represented in the moment when she recovers her human form and is staring at her own reflection in the water, “with an aura of narcissism”[3], after the excruciating pain of her transformation. While Keats focuses in his poem on the terrible process of Lamia’s transformation back into human form, Waterhouse decided on a more neutral and pleasant depiction, without reflecting the terrible pains Lamia suffers.



Lamia by J. W. Waterhouse. Source:


We cannot forget the social background, as we pointed above, since we are leaving the Victorian era behind and moving towards the rise of the New Woman in the late nineteenth century, thus, causing a change of gender relations. The role of women started to shift in society, above all by the end of the century, with a greater presence within the labour market and the rise of the New Woman movement, considered to threaten Victorian conventional ideas about womanhood. Waterhouse, therefore, represents a modern woman who uses her body as a “powerful vehicle for self-expression and female assertiveness”.[4] She is autonomous, less constrained, what can be seen even in her cascading and long hair which she is combing with her hands, when in the previous version her hair was tightly bound at the back of her head. Her transformation is, thus, different from the Keatsian Lamia. The image concentrates on Lamia and there is no sign or allusion to Lycius. She is liberated and has become the protagonist of this version and of her own narrative, possessing all the physical attributes which attract male sexuality, but cherishing them for herself.

Additionally, this painting of Lamia can remind observers of Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, which could have inspired Waterhouse in his approach to the topic at hand. Rossetti painted his Lilith between 1866 and 1868, although he altered it again between 1872 and 1873, and he shows us a Lilith as a powerful temptress, combing her curly bright red hair while observing herself in a mirror. The similitudes with Waterhouse’s Lamia are, therefore, clear: his Lamia observes her reflexion in the water while combing her abundant and free hair, which has an almost identical bright red colour, and she also wears a loose dress which reveals part of her upper body, in a marked contrast with Victorian clothing. Both women are thus represented as powerful and sexual, but both resisting male domination, for they choose rather to focus on their own beauty and body, fully aware of their power of seduction and aspiring to become equal to men.

Ultimately, both “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “Lamia” offered Waterhouse the opportunity to further explore the theme of female beauty and the sexual seductiveness of the femme fatale and his own (as well as his contemporary male society’s) fears of the figure of the New Woman and of fem

[1] Cooper, Robyn, “Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci and the Femme Fatale”, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 27 (1986), [Accessed 2 January 2017].

[2] Maiti, Abhik, “Keats in Colour: One Whose Name was Writ in Paint”, The Literary Herald 2:1 (2016) 11.

[3] Huang, Chiung-Ying , “A Tale of Two Lamias: The Representation of Lamia’s Passions and Transformation in John Keats and J. W. Waterhouse”, The Luminary 2 (2010) [Accessed 4 January 2017].

[4] Ibid.