John William Waterhouse Boreas (1903) is a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece painting. It's one of the 100 most famous paintings in the world, celebrated for its beauty and enigmatic mystery.
As one of our most sought-after art reproductions, we explore the fascinating story behind Boreas.
This John William Waterhouse portrait (painted in 1903) depicts a woman standing in a windswept field.
Speaking of the painting in 1904, the Royal Academy described the woman's "wind-blown draperies" painted in slate and blue. The description also notes how the young woman passes through a "spring landscape" adorned with daffodils and gentle pink blossoms. A daffodil also sits gently behind the woman's right ear. This bright yellow detail offsets the woman's porcelain white face.
The small swathe of the sky is also slate gray, with small trees in the distance blowing in the wind. The woman (a possible personification of Spring) raises her hands to her head. She tries to keep the lightweight gray fabric from slipping away.
Waterhouse masterfully depicts the fabric's folds and shadows, revealing underneath the woman's decorative blue dress. She doesn't look directly at the viewer but wistfully gazes toward the right of the painting.
Boreas was an influential Greek god who ruled the cold north winds. As part of this, Boreas signaled the approach of winter and oncoming storms. As a result, Boreas often appeared as a strong older man in Greek mythology and sculpture.
He sometimes had wings and held a conch shell. Boreas almost always wore a billowing cloak with long flowing hair. He also had an extreme temper to match the fierce winds he summoned.
John William Waterhouse's painting depicts a woman wearing a long billowing cloak. Her long hair is just visible under the dark gray fabric. But, like the Boreas of mythology, the woman's expression is also troubled and moody.
Given the title, however, the spring setting is confusing. It's unclear why Waterhouse depicted these northerly winter winds amid a spring scene. It could symbolize the artist's emotions or the cold winds common in English spring.
One interpretation lies in Greek mythology. Boreas captured an Athenian princess (Orithyia) while she danced on the banks of the Ilisos river. After she refused his advances, he resorted to his usual temper and abducted the young woman. He wrapped her up in a cloud, raped her, and fathered two sons.
This story brings added significance to the billowing, cloud-like slate-gray fabric surrounding John William Waterhouse Boreas painting.
Boreas by John William Waterhouse exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelites art style.
Early in his career, Waterhouse painted in a Neo-Classical style. He created highly traditional and conservative paintings, adhering to the strict Royal Academy rules of composition and form.
Waterhouse later embraced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's approach. He was known for his beautiful depictions of women from Medieval Arthurian Legend and Greek mythology.
John Waterhouse adopted intensely realistic detailing as part of his later Pre-Raphaelites art. He also often used intense, jewel-toned colors and complex compositions. The Pre-Raphaelites believed the carefully controlled poses and compositions of painters such as Raphael and Michelangelo corrupted art. So they looked to restore art to its previous glory, calling it "Pre-Raphaelites.”
Waterhouse wasn't among the first group of Pre-Raphaelite painters. This initial group included artists such as William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais. Nonetheless, Waterhouse deeply admired their approach, particularly the movement's strong links between nature and romance.
Lost to the art world for many years, Boreas reappeared in the mid-1990s. This rediscovery caused massive shock and surprise to art historians and the general public.
Put up for auction soon after; the painting sold for over $1.2 million. This sale set a record price for John William Waterhouse paintings at the time.
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