Art by Bobby Sample: The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott / oil on canvas 30"x48"
©2005 Bobby Sample. All rights reserved.

It would be fun to hear the stories conjured by art lovers to help make sense of this scene, in case they are unfamiliar with the poem "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (What's with this woman, anyway?) For those who prefer to go straight to the source of inspiration for this painting, they can find the text of the 1842 version at Bartleby.Com.

My friends know that fairy tale scenery is not my favorite subject, but taking an honest shot at Shalott at the request of my wife did pose fascinating challenges. I wanted the environment to maintain a large and imposing presence, as if the outside world were an opposing force for the heroine to challenge with a sort of palpable hubrus. At the same time, how would the challenger compete with all this scenery for the viewer's attention and empathy?

Some typical compositional tricks help, with various elements literally pointing to the human subject. However, I found it a little more interesting to give this forest an unnatural attitude, a bit too stoney and confining despite its proud colors, almost seeming to gather its elements defensively around the soul who will no longer call it home. Also, although it's easier to tell in person, the Lady is painted with sharper focus and detail than the rest of the scene so that you are drawn into her face as you approach the piece more closely.

Whether fans of all things Victorian will approve of my unVictorian revision, I cannot tell. This is considerably different from all other artists' depictions of Tennyson's character and her surroundings. Although I find the popular John W. Waterhouse version to be soulfully gorgeous, my aim was to defy the tradition of emphasizing the victimized state of this Lady and instead to celebrate her defining moment of free will. After all, her decision to shed her world of illusions and pursue human love not only brings upon her mortality, but also comprises her only experience of true life—so like the rest of us.