J. W. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs: A Modern Debate

The Manchester Art Gallery recently removed what is probably their best-loved painting ‘to prompt conversation’. The story of Hylas and the Nymphs dates back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans and has come down to us in a variety of tellings which means the story can be interpreted more than one way. I like J.W. Waterhouse’s painting of the subject and was sorry to learn it had been taken from view.

Controversy was intensified by this Guardian interview with the curator Claire Gannaway which included the quote:

“We think it probably will return, yes, but hopefully contextualised quite differently. It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery.”

By the time my sweetheart and I called in to the gallery earlier this week, the picture had been replaced, now above a sea of post-it notes.

People looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting with post-it messages

The short-lived exercise generated significant publicity for the gallery not just nationally, but internationally. The Guardian alone appears to have published at least ten articles.

At the gallery, I had expected to be reaching for a post-it to add my own words to the debate, but discovered I was more interested in reading other people’s comments. In that spirit, I’m sharing a selection of viewpoints, taken from the 790 moderated comments that currently appear on the blog post on the gallery’s website. In the main, they were written before the painting was put back on view. They have been lightly edited and are inescapably coloured by being the conflicts that interest me. To get a proper feel for the debate, check out the unedited comments on the gallery’s website.

I’m really shocked by this decision. I grew up in Manchester and I love this painting. When I come back to Manchester, seeing it is always one of the highlights on my list. I was always proud that we had it in Manchester – it seemed so much more beautiful than so many of the gallery’s other paintings. I used to assume that it would be poached by a southern gallery at some point and was always pleased to see that it was still safely there. As a teenage girl, I had a print of this on my bedroom wall and often popped into MAG when I was passing to see it displayed there. I always saw it as entirely empowering – it’s the young girls in the painting who are powerful, not Hylas. It’s partly the trust in Hylas’s face that I used to find so moving and partly just the strength of the emotion in that central gaze – despite the painting’s title and theme, the gaze between Hylas and the central nymph isn’t lecherous and it isn’t coquettish, either; it’s a depiction of love – misguided young love, with all its passionate strength and hope and misjudgement. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful painting, too: the facial expressions are so realistic – much more so than in many paintings of the same era, and the detail is so carefully observed.  – Sarah

You’re not provoking discussion by removing a beloved painting, you are inciting negative reactions. – Nancy Kilpatrick

…you can’t make an art piece speak in a way it doesn’t speak, tell a story that isn’t its story to tell; all you can do is listen more deeply… If a museum has interest only in contemporary thoughts and voices (and has no interest in studying the rich history of the past to see the voices who moved human history forward), that’s fine but they owe it to the rest of us to donate those art pieces to museums who will respect them so that the rest of us can still study, interpret, and learn from them. – Michelle Gender

A blank wall filled with post it notes is just a sure fire way to anger most free thinking people and involve those who simply want a new excuse to rail against the ‘liberal elite’. Is this the conversation you want? You have made a mistake in removing the painting, please return it and let this all die down. There are far better ways to help with the Me Too campaign than blatant censorship. – Steve Hanscomb

While it is laudable that MSG has finally woken up and garnered the courage to remove the Waterhouse travesty, it is disappointing that none of the other offending paintings were removed, as they should have been.

The year is 2018 and we will no longer put up with such offensive dribble, if it is (supposedly) art or not. Women should be able to decide what kind of pictures of other women they want to be exposed to, not old white men.

I urge the resonsible curators not to be taken aback by the backlash they’re seeing on social media. Obviously people want to hang onto idols of their perverted view of gender dynamics. Such is the nature of discrimination. Fortunately, it is not up to them to decide what is being shown in museums and I hope more institutions will follow in your footsteps. – Gemma Fieldsroy

Some of us aren’t afraid of beauty, and don’t need big sisters to tell us other sisters what we’re permitted to see. – Cathy’s daughter

To me the gallery was a special magical place and I assumed the curators loved and cherished the wonderful art as I do. But now we know, not just Hylas and the Nymphs, but any number of other paintings in their care are considered “embarrassing”, “problematic” and needing to be censored… It’s a blow for Manchester as well, because of all the amateur happenings in the leading gallery and the fact that we now know that the gallery is ashamed of it’s own paintings. – Jon

Art can offend anyone, if you go down this path you’ll end up with an empty gallery. – Alex Jump

There are two important freedoms needed in an art gallery (1) the freedom to display art even though not everyone approves of it, and (2) the freedom of the viewer to interpret that art as they see fit. Removing an art work to the basement restricts the first freedom – and heavy contextualisation of art limits the second – Aileene C

Art is supposed to reflect the entirety of the human condition. Surely this includes exploring male desire, and men’s fear of female power, which is what this painting represents. It is a snapshot of male anxiety just at a time when women were starting to win more freedom. It tells a tale from our history, which is exactly what museums are supposed to do. Manchester Gallery should present their art to the public and allow them to judge, not hide it away, which is tantamount to cultural theft. – Tom Harrison

The curators complains that “it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies.” In the picture’s own terms, it is quite obvious that it is the opposite–the women are pulling the hunky man into the pool. – Nick

When I look at this painting and understand the Nymphs are luring him to his death, I see naked teenage girls in a lake about to commit murder. I can understand the historical context of the subjugation of women for the male gaze, but in today’s context of women shaking off gendered exceptions, a whole exhibition of murderesses in classic artwork would be bad ass. Sign me up. – Surrealistic 84

According to the Latin Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus, he [Hercules] never found Hylas because he had fallen in love with the nymphs and remained “to share their power and their love.” Not really seeing how this diminishes women. – Dante D’Anthony

Put a homoerotic image or sculpture next to the Waterhouse, to redress the balance. – David Newton

Unfortunately for Clare, the conversation just doesn’t appear to be going her way. That’s the problem with the public I guess, they don’t always do what they’re told. – Marcus Etinger

Ever since I was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites, John William Waterhouse has been a favourite of mine. Having lost my husband four years ago to brain cancer, I found solace in three of his works, “Boreas”, “The Lady of Shallot” and “Hylas and the Nymphs”. Waterhouse’s paintings not only express an incredible artistic temperament, but he is a master at emotional storytelling within an ethereal world.

For years, I have been living in London and thinking how much I would love to see “Hylas and the Nymphs” at least once in my lifetime. Well, I finally got the opportunity to go to the Manchester Art Gallery only to be told the painting was removed on Friday 26th January as some part of feminist installation relating to the representation of the female body. I cannot express how devastated I am, not only to miss out on seeing the painting but to be told that it may never be exhibited again.’ – Annas Eskander

Here’s a suggestion for a follow-up event.

An open invitation (this time, genuine,) is given to the people of Manchester to assemble in the ‘Pursuit of Beauty’ Gallery. Lined up before them will be the trustees, directors, and curators of the Manchester Art Gallery. The people can then select one of them for temporary, or possibly permanent, removal. – Robin Betts

I’m in favour. You’d think the town where its paintings of passive women had been slashed by campaigners for the female right to vote wouldn’t be whining about “political correctness” and “censorship” by having a painting taken down and accompanied with a little note explaining what is happening. – Holl

No art exists outside of context, the context of its production, of its acquisition, of its history of display and of where it is displayed now, at the moment of apprehension by the viewer. And each of these contexts can be further examined – who was the curator who oversaw the purchase, what was their relationship to the artist, what had they bought before and what else would they eventually buy, where did the money come from, how was payment made, were there any conditions that the artist insisted upon. And each of these could be further examined, and so on. Is all of this evidenced in the very thing itself, as it stands or hangs in front of the viewer?… Having had the time to look at the reactions here and elsewhere, I can say that the gallery looked to have lost control of the message, and that this was a shame. They did not manage to communicate their real love and guardianship of an extraordinary and fine collection and of their wish to continue to present it meaningfully to a contemporary audience. – whyIOughta

You ask how could artworks speak in more contemporary ways. We are all of us surrounded by the contemporary : modern life throws news, facts, ideas at us all the time. One of the functions of the arts is precisely to take us out of today and remind us that people in other times and other places had different ideas and thought in different ways from us. If we can, at least occasionally, be aware of this, we might have a bit more perspective on our own times and not so easily fall for whatever is the latest fashion. – Richard

When I first heard about this ‘controversy’ I was slightly irritated by what I felt was the curator’s naivety and lack of awareness about the repercussions that such an act could potentially unleash. Having now trawled through, what I believe to be, so many deeply reactionary and disproportionate comments that have framed this online debate, my empathy now sits firmly with Clare Garraway and the Manchester Art Gallery. – Christopher Coppock

I think you should take heart in that the general public do engage with art and will protect it. They know how to place (this picture anyway) in its historical context as modern thoughts about it are easy, placing it backwards in time is not… They know the mythological backstory to the painting but felt you did not…

They are now asking you to ask questions of yourselves and your attitude to art. For goodness sack do not make the mistake of thinking them reductive – KM

Geez, people, it’s ONE painting! I think art will survive. – Amy

37 Replies to “J. W. Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs: A Modern Debate”

  1. Wow, wow, and wow! As a woman, as a feminist and proud of it, I do not see that painting as being at all demeaning. Like one of the commentators, I find the nymphs, the women, to be incredibly powerful. But, the removal of the painting certainly encouraged a lively discussion. A good thing, perhaps?

    1. A good thing, as it turned out, although I think they did get a few things wrong along the way. I don’t get the feeling the gallery team were expecting the response they got. It is so difficult to know what the media will pick up on and it can be overwhelming when you feel the full force of the attention you’re hoping for.

      1. Right you are! So many ways to approach this. The more I thought about the painting, the more I could see why it might be considered offensive, even though I wasn’t offended. Great post and thanks so much for writing about this.

  2. I was interested in the original story and the furore it caused. I think it was quite a clever way of promoting debate. The sort of debate that has you flare up immediately with a gut reaction, and then be forced to stop and think about whether you really want to justify your position, or to change it. Me? I’m happy to see it restored, but on the other hand, wouldn’t care if I never saw this particular work again. Not my period, not my taste.

    1. I like: ‘The sort of debate that has you flare up immediately with a gut reaction, and then be forced to stop and think about whether you really want to justify your position, or to change it.’ The ideas raised are not straightforward.

      I have often thought that discussion does not necessarily add much to individual artwork – that art should speak to us or move us without needing explanations, but that might be naive.

      1. No, you’re right. But sometimes it’s helpful. It’s easy to drift round an art gallery thinking ‘yeah, that’s nice. That one not so much’. Anything that promotes looking, even if the original reaction wasn’t really about that at all, is good I think.

        1. You’re right. Anything that gets people in to a gallery and thinking about art has to be good, for the gallery, if not necessarily for the person!

  3. It’s not the painting I best loved there, that would be a Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca. When I was a child, an art gallery was a place to go to be educated, to learn about the canon of Great Art; it took me a long time to see galleries as a place of entertainment, and if curators want them to be a place for dialogue I am all for that. I have had fun judging the price of particular art works at the Tate- I gave different values to the market. And there are art works I have similar feelings about to Sarah’s about this Hylas, so I resonate with her.

  4. Perhaps we shouldn’t be attaching 21st century ideals to 19th century artworks. If we did that, so many paintings would come under adverse scrutiny. I think it’s a beautiful painting and it’s the nymphs who are wielding the power, so it doesn’t offend me.

    1. I agree. In my early days of blogging, I started to write a series of posts about the Brontes. I only published the first because of the awkwardness I felt explaining why people should not be offended by some of the attitudes of the age. The idea that the leading ladies could not walk home through the fields alone, but a servant girl could make the same journey to escort her; the idea of the normal poverty of working people; the idea of a woman having to adopt the guise of Captain before her proposals on how her money should be spent to help the poor could be taken into account…

      It is deeply ironic that such pioneering women have to be defended, despite their courage in unleashing social bonds for us all by publishing at all, let alone works of their nature.

  5. This kind of discussion is so interesting. People are so quick to offend, rather than think of context, history, meaning. Art should engage, cause reactions, teach us about our lives–and it speaks to different people in different ways. One would think that curators would realize that people have a relationship to the permanent collections on display and would react. I hope it returns and feel bad for the person who traveled up and then missed it.

    1. It is back in place now. I agree about the lady who had set her heart on seeing the picture – I’d like to think the museum might have contacted her and tried to set things right, but she was not alone in expressing this.

  6. I love the comment about getting the museum staff to exhibit themselves for people to reject – smile – brilliant post – love it – and in case anyone wants to know – this fetish started by ‘the snowflakes’ has gone far to far!

    1. I feel uncomfortable when people in charge decide what artwork should be withheld from others – whether that is a picture, a book or a film. Art worthy of the name has life outside its creators. The debate as a whole is complex, especially as the curator bundled so many issues together. We have to hope that some of the things being raised are society’s growing pains – movement towards a kindlier world.

  7. This was all Greek to me (sorry). Despite my misspent youth immersed in mythology, I had no memory of Hylas. So I’ve been googling in order to have a smattering of understanding of context for this. My two cents: mythology is profoundly important. If its depiction incites or inspires, all the more reason to remind ourselves of it. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading these different points of view — thank you!

    1. Myths have so much power. The oral tradition must have concentrated the available stories down as the less engaging moments got lost in the telling and retelling.

  8. This is a most stimulating post. The original report had somehow passed me by! But you set me off on a ‘ggogle chase’ – first to explore more closely the painting and other works by Waterhouse; from there to the Guardian article, and then to the various interpretations of the Hylas myth. Add to that the drama of the debate it provoked and you have the perfect package!

    1. I’m glad you followed the (virtual) paper trail. It’s refreshing to see a public debate about art. It might be an idea to hold a public vote to decide what should be shown in a room of the gallery or even just one space on the walls.

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