In this ongoing series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week we consider a moving visage by a 19th-century legend.
This week I find myself wondering what famed 19th-century painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) would have thought about his paintings becoming almost mythic objects themselves, 100 years after his death. Stunningly beautiful and highly coveted by collectors and institutions around the globe, works such as “Boreas” have a mystical aura about them that pulls viewers in.
Perhaps it’s his color? Those lively strokes of the brush? Maybe it’s his acute sense of texture, or the fact that many of his subjects were mythological characters themselves. Whatever the reason may be, there’s little doubt that Waterhouse possessed something great, a talent unable to be taught, a vision unable to be replicated.
This week’s feature portrait caused quite a stir in the art world some 20 or so years ago. Having been lost soon after its production in 1903, “Boreas” resurfaced in the mid-1990s at auction, realizing nearly $1.3 million — a then-world record. The sensation surrounding the painting was valid, as it’s surely a tour de force of Pre-Raphaelite perfection. Standing in profile, facing toward the viewer’s left, and imaged in three-quarter view, a woman braces her back against a nearly palpable wind; the painting is named for the Greek god of the north wind. With flowers in her hair, the woman wears a cool silk veil, which has caught like a sail in the wind. With her arms raised, the woman elegantly holds the veil firm. Her face is hypnotic in its calmness, which contrasts with the movement apparent around her.
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