Guinevere, Guennuvar, Gwenhwyfar, Ginovar, Wenhaver, Wennevaria. Her character is about as widely interpreted as the spellings of her name. Damsel in distress, cunning adulteress, noble queen. Every version of the legend (and need I repeat that there are hundreds) seems to have interpreted her differently. Her portrayal in art is no less varied and complex. All in all, she is a very multifaceted and real character. Her actions are not difficult for us imperfect humans to understand, especially given her situation, caught between duty and passion.
“Guenevere” or “La Belle Iseult” by William Morris. Though this painting is generally thought to depict Guinevere, some think that it may actually portray Isolde. Nevertheless, the situation is applicable to either. The rumpled sheets, unfastened belt, and preoccupied expression on her face hint at the sexual guilt of an adulterous queen. However, it doesn’t necessarily portray her as wicked. Her expression implies remorse and deep sadness. This painting is a masterpiece in that it combines multiple sides of Guinevere’s character into a believable portrait.
“Queen Guinevere Maying” by John Collier. This beautifully executed scene portrays Guinevere Maying with her servants and subjects. According to many legends, she is separated from the group kidnapped by Melwas while Maying. However, this scene does not necessarily imply impending doom. Rather it depicts her regal, almost aloof bearing. No one could mistake her for being anything less than a queen. She is an object of wonder, outshining the blossoms held in her hand.
“Lancelot and Guinevere” by Herbert James Draper. In this whimsical, romantic depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s first meeting, Guinevere is preparing for her wedding. The celebration tents can be seen in the background, as well as the flowers adorning everything. Their eyes meet as Lancelot passes by on his horse. This painting portrays Guinevere as beautiful and noble, but also foreshadows her coming betrayal when she chooses her heart over her duty.
“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer. This is perhaps one of the only artistic portrayals of the burdens of being Arthur’s queen. It is not clear whether the departing ship is Arthur leaving to fight the Saxons, or is Arthur’s death boat. Either way, Guinevere must bear the burden of a soldier’s wife, as well as a king’s wife. She must watch him go off to war, not knowing if and when he will return, left lonely and filled with anxiety.
“Guinevere in her Golden Days” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. Ms. Brickdale illustrated a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King. These include many different stages of Guinevere’s life, from an innocent maiden, to a radiant young queen, to a guilt-ridden lover, to a penitent nun. This one is my personal favorite, depicting Guinevere shortly after becoming queen, but before her affair with Lancelot. The peace, leisure, and sumptuousness of being queen are well portrayed, as well as her natural beauty and grace.