As with many Romantic artists Waterhouse took inspirations from ancient tales of heraldry and love. Producing several paintings on the subject, the Lady of Shalott was obviously something of an ongoing fascination for the artist. The popularity of poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson during Waterhouse's lifetime also establishes this subject matter as being popular with the public and Waterhouse's patrons. Similar topics have also been covered by earlier pre-Raphaelite artists which may have acted as inspirations for the Waterhouse.
The main inspiration for Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott is of course the poem of the same name by Tennyson. Based on the Arthurian Legend of Elaine of Astolat, a woman trapped in a tower and cursed not to look upon the outside world but through a mirror. When she breaks the curse looking through the window at the knight Lancelot, she is doomed to die.
Waterhouse captures the moment as she sets of down the river to Camelot, not long before her death. Tennyson's poem was first published in 1833 and was hugely popular within Victorian society; it undoubtedly came to Waterhouse's attention when he was a boy.
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