June 25, 2013

I Wish I Were a Waterhouse Girl

One of the things that I’ve already been told a hundred times — in books, in therapy, in forums — is that as a transgender woman I will never have the “ideal” body, the one in my mind that wish I had. And I understand that rationally, even if it is emotionally one of those unavoidable disappointments that I can do absolutely nothing about but feel crushed by nonetheless.

If I were able to magically transform into some version of my “feminine ideal,” though, it’s no doubt that I would probably choose to look like one of the women in a John Wiliiam Waterhouse painting.


I’ve long been a fan of Waterhouse. I discovered him sometime in college, though I don’t remember where exactly; probably in an art history course. Waterhouse worked in the style of an artistic movement known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of 19th-century artists who favored classical subjects and techniques (the “Pre-Raphaelite” part means that they wanted to go back to before Raphael, the famous Renaissance painter, whom they indirectly blamed for ruining art). There’s plenty of excellent art in the PRB sphere, though for my money Waterhouse is the best of the lot.


Waterhouse painted a lot of different subjects, mostly classical. But one of the things he’s known for is the “Waterhouse girl” — a partuicular depiction of the feminine form that is distinctive and recognizable in his work. The vast majority of his paintings have one or more Waterhouse girls in them. I simply think they’re beautiful — not busty or curvy or sexy, just elegant, graceful and poised.

You may notice that many of them look alike. It’s probably because Waterhouse had a known group of models whom he used in many of his paintings. But they become something more in his art.


 If you read this blog, you’ve seen Waterhouse’s work before; I’ve been using two of his Lady of Shalott paintings (he did three) as the banner art for the last couple of months. But there’s so much more of his work to share and admire. I’ve sampled five of my favorites for this post, but if you really want to get to know the man and his work, you should check out the John William Waterhouse Comprehensive Gallery. Go there and just admire the way he depicts his women (and everything else, honestly).

The Lady of Shalott 1888 by John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

I mentioned that Waterhouse worked in the style of the PRB. Worth noting is that one of the core concepts of the PRB was that of memesis. Any ten-cent definition will tell you that memesis is a Greek term that means imitation or mimicry, but open up a more scholarly dictionary or glossary and you’ll find a much more nuanced definition:

Mimesis is an extremely broad and theoretically elusive term that encompasses a range of possibilities for how the self-sufficient and symbolically generated world created by people can relate to any given “real”, fundamental, exemplary, or significant world […] Michael Taussig describes the mimetic faculty as “the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other. The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power.”

Just let that one stir in your noodle for a moment, and then think about it in terms of transgender. It’s not viewed as correct in trans circles to say that transgender women are in any way “imitating real women;” but the extent to which I, as a transwoman in early transition, have to perform memesis to be seen as the Self I wish to be, even far from my ideal, is undeniable.


I told my therapist once that I was discouraged because everything that I did to be Ali — the clothes, the wig, the makeup, the padded bra — were in effect affectations that I’d adopted to present myself as something other than what my body was underneath. And it’s true. I must imitate before I can become Other; through imitation I will become my Self. That’s memesis, and that’s one reason — of many! — that I find Waterhouse’s works so beautiful and resonant.

One thing in my life I’ve always wanted to do is to see a Waterhouse painting “in the flesh.” My local museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, doesn’t have one; but Toronto, Canada does. In fact, they have what is probably my favorite Waterhouse painting of all, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows” (below). Some day I’ll make it out there (I don’t currently have a passport) and spend an hour just staring at the thing!



  • Just not possible to put up a lovelier, easy-on-the-eyes, and artsy-fartsy post than this one, Ali.
    I’m not big on superlatives………..really!………but this post is a keeper! Ewe dun gud! *hehehehe*

  • This was so interesting to read; a few years ago, I discovered Waterhouse because an acting teacher scolded me for my “pre-Raphaelite beauty”, and was unnerved to find I looked a lot like one of the types he used: the strong-jawed Flora, or the bored Lady of Shallot that you say is your favourite. I’m from Toronto, and I’ve seen it in person many times. I hope you can to someday.
    I’m actually writing a play about the end of Waterhouse’s life, which was when Picasso was a young man, focusing on one of his possible models, this girl I see in so many of his sketches and paintings. It’s a way to sort out my feelings about the resemblance.
    I really wish you all the brightness and optimism on this journey you’re on; the trans path is difficult, more difficult than I can imagine, but I believe there’s something truly magic and wondrous about such a transformation. Perhaps that’s just the fairytale Waterhouse girl in me, but I wish you the best and hope you have amazing experiences!

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