John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), “Boreas,” 1903, oil on canvas, 27 x 37 in. © Private Collection

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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Andrew Webster is the former Editor of Fine Art Today and worked as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.


  1. It is truly a beautiful work of art. None of Mr. John William Waterhouse’s works would ever be considered ‘other than beautiful.’ At least, none I ever viewed. David of Dogpatch


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