The Lady of Shalott, also known as Elaine of Astolat, is one of the most common subjects in Arthurian-inspired artwork. To understand most interpretations of her, it is important to be familiar with Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is for an unknown reason imprisoned in a castle on the island of Shalott, adjacent to Camelot. She is cursed to weave a tapestry and only see the world through a circular mirror that reflects the real world from the window opposite. She knows there will be consequences if she looks into the real world, but she knows not what the consequence is. One day she sees Lancelot through the window and she gives in and looks out her window at his real image, immediately falling in love with him. Her tapestry unravels from the loom and the mirror cracks. She leaves the tower and lies in a boat with her name carved in the side, floating down the river to Camelot as she dies. Most likely it is her watery death and inescapable curse that draws people to her situation most strongly.
Her character in more traditional Arthurian legends is much different. Many versions exist, including her being manipulated by her father, who convinces her to seduce Lancelot and bind her to him, she ends up falling in love with Lancelot. Another version consists of her falling in love with Lancelot at a joust and asking him to wear her favor. Most versions agree that she dies of a broken heart when Lancelot rejects her in favor of Guinevere, and her corpse floats to Camelot in a boat. She is a flawed character, yet realistic and intriguing. Maybe this is why artists love to interpret her character, appearance, and demise.
The first set of paintings are clearly depicting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, while the rest are most likely referring to Elaine of Astolat, whose fate inspired Tennyson’s character.
The Lady of Shalott
“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse. The title line of this piece is from Tennyson’s poem. She can only view the real world through a circular mirror, and so is only experiencing shadows of reality. She sees young lovers through the mirror and wishes she could take part in that world; this moment is expressing her awakened desire for love.
“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by Sidney Meteyard. This is also the line from Tennyson’s poem, like Waterhouse’s piece. The circular mirror can be seen casting a dim reflection of the young lovers in the background. The darker colors of this piece, as well as her pose, suggest a darker, more sensual tone.
“The Lady of Shalott” by William Maw Egley. This is also portraying the moment when she glimpses Lancelot in reality, though the curse has yet to wreak its havoc. Lancelot can be seen through the mirror on the opposite side of the room, and Camelot is visible through the widow at the back.
“The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot” by John William Waterhouse. This is depicting the moment when she gives in and looks at Lancelot through the window. We already see the curse is unfolding, as the mirror behind her cracks and the threads from the tapestry entangle her. Lancelot’s armored head can be seen in the mirror.
“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt. This is also the moment of the curse bearing down upon her, with the cracked mirror, entangling threads, and her hair blowing wildly in some unearthly wind. Lancelot is also visible through this mirror. This piece is heavy in symbolism, from the numerous random objects scattered across the floor to the frescoes on the wall.
“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse. This is probably the most well-known paintings of the Lady of Shalott, and is perhaps the only one to depict her still alive in her death boat. This particular piece is also interesting because the woman pictured looks completely different from the other two paintings in which Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott. She takes with her the tapestry she has been weaving in her tower for who knows how long, and her name is carved in the prow. The raw emotion in her face is also evident; the viewer can clearly see the anguish and heartbreak she is experiencing.
“The Lady of Shalott” by Arthur Hughes. This piece displays the reaction of peasant women, presumably collecting herbs by the river, to the tragic corpse of the lady. Her paleness, along with her white gown, make her stand out and compare her to the graceful swan swimming alongside her.
“Lady of Shalott” by G. E. Robertson. This painting depicts the moment her boat reaches Camelot. The man leaning over her is most likely Lancelot, for he was the first to see her when she reaches Camelot and remarks that she had a lovely face. In this piece, the Lady of Shalott is also lying on her woven tapestry and is displayed magnificently and tragically in her boat.
Elaine of Astolat
“Elaine, or the Lily Maid of Astolat” by Sophie Anderson. Most images of Elaine focus directly on her death and not on her predicament with Lancelot. The bargeman is also a common figure in Elaine’s death and is portrayed mourning in this piece. Elaine’s paleness is perhaps the most striking component, emphasizing both her fairness and her death.
“Elaine Floats Down to Camelot” by Briton Riviere. This piece is much more peaceful, with a hint of a smile on Elaine’s porcelain-like face, as if she finally found peace and relief to her anguish through death. The sunrise or sunset also suggests hope or a new beginning. The bargeman’s contemplative pose also adds to the tone.
“Elaine” by Pollie Clarke. This is a very romantic depiction of Elaine, adorned with lilles and arriving at the lush river bank. The knight surveying her is most likely Lancelot.
“Elaine” by John Atkinson Grimshaw. This piece is very somber and even spooky. The red light makes the water look red, like blood, and hints at violence and/or chaos. This contrasts to Elaine’s peaceful expression and white gown, implying she was the victim of a corrupt world.