Nymph or Nymphet: John William Waterhouse and the Ever-Shifting Definition of Pedophilia

(Last Updated On May 30, 2022)

There is no shortage of controversy these days over artworks featuring nude and/or eroticized children. Quite often these turn out to be massively overblown, and more often than not the “erotic” aspects of said art are purely in the eye of the critical beholder. But at least in most of those cases the art does feature an actual child. Recently a painting by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse, called Hylas and the Nymphs, was removed from display at the Manchester Art Gallery in a blatant attempt to create controversy where none previously existed.  This was supposedly done in order to “encourage debate” about the way the female body is represented in relation to the male gaze or something.  It’s not hard to see where this is going, right?

John William Waterhouse – Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

This publicity stunt was in fact prompted by an actual controversy over Balthus’s painting Thérèse Dreaming (which does feature an underage girl in a somewhat provocative pose) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Mia Merrill was the person who formally objected to the work, arguing that the Met was, “romanticising voyeurism and the objectification of children.”  On those grounds she presented the museum with a petition containing over 8,000 signatures in order to pressure the Met into removing the work.  To its credit, the museum refused to bow to such political concerns, and the work was left alone.

Balthus – Thérèse Dreaming (1938)

Nevertheless, this convinced Clare Gannaway, curator of the Manchester Art Gallery, to remove the Waterhouse painting temporarily.  Her reasoning was thus:

It’s not about saying these things can’t exist in a public gallery – it’s about saying, maybe we just need to challenge the way these paintings have been read and enable them to speak in a different way.

In other words, her plan was to generate some sort of larger cultural reaction to art on the whole, a #MeToo-like movement where we collectively reassess the youthful female form in art and shed light on how we have long taken for granted the male exploitation of the female form.  Now, I have no problem with challenging the paradigmatic conception of femininity in art, but the proper way to do that is not to play moral panic games with the public by introducing a pseudo-controversy into the dialogue.

People were asked to comment on this state of affairs, garnering predictably mixed results, with one or more of the commenters noting some supposed pedophilic aspect to Waterhouse’s portrayal of the nymphs.  Says Chris Taylor:

Not one of your correspondents seems to want to directly address Hylas and the Nymphs’s subtle, but surely unmistakable, paedophilic content. I can understand why the male spectator finds a peculiar difficulty in broaching this – there are always problematic moral considerations of the direct imputation of taboo motives for that male gaze (however expressed). But what of the female spectator’s gaze? Having lectured on British and French 19th-century art for many years, I have always been struck by the extraordinary art critical silence in discussing the ways in which paedophilic desire is often embodied in that century’s depiction of the female nude. Or have I simply misunderstood – is it the case that paedophilic desire did not exist before the 20th century?

It’s interesting that Taylor points out the painting’s unmistakable pedophilic content, since to my knowledge no one had, until this point, recognized it in any explicit way, or else every single viewer who saw it just ignored that part of it.  Or, could it be that it simply isn’t there?  As per usual, the modern feminist critic’s definition of pedophilia is very different from the clinical definition, which limits it to desire for prepubescent children only.  Whereas Waterhouse’s nymphs are, at the very youngest, 15 or 16 (with 16 being the legal age of consent in the painter’s native England then, as now).  While these nymphs are certainly young, as nymphs are traditionally meant to be, no one could accuse them of being prepubescent.

Nor is the context particularly exploitative or suggestive of pedophilia.  Far from being some sly old lech attempting to seduce a naive young girl, Hylas is himself clearly a youth, beardless and, from all appearances, rather reluctant to be pulled into the nymphs’ watery domain.  If anything, it is the females who appear to have the sexual upper hand here.  They outnumber the boy seven to one, and they are obviously the seducers, not the seducees.

But perhaps the biggest problem with Gannaway’s attempted attachment of the male admiration of the young female body in art to the #MeToo phenomenon is that it in fact minimizes the horror of actual sexual assault by muddying the waters with something much more innocuous, the flip side of which is a dangerous conflation of fantasy and reality in this era of “alternative fact.”  This was a badly conceived thought experiment that should have been nixed at the brainstorming stage.  If we’re lucky, this will be a minor blip soon forgotten.  Unfortunately, it may have as yet unseen repercussions which could conceivably do real damage to the art world before cooler minds prevail.

6 thoughts on “Nymph or Nymphet: John William Waterhouse and the Ever-Shifting Definition of Pedophilia

  1. “Pedophilia” is perhaps the most violated term in its real meaning. It became something ambiguous used politically by ignorant, almost always to try to cause some moral terror.

    A few months ago some pieces of art were taken out of circulation here in Brazil with the same claim of “pedophilia”. This seems to be the trick of the time to censor and propagate ignorance.

  2. If the feminists get their way, these paintings and other artwork will be banned, and then we will be back to square one. They are all blurring the lines between artwork and exploitation and rape!!! It is all about the he said/she said stuff, and it is not fair to the “suspects” who are entitled to due process. 🙁

  3. I love Greek myths! In the third Century BC (or BCE if you are squeamish) Apollonius Rhodius wrote “…the Naias of the spring, was just emerging from the limpid water as Hylas drew near. And there, with the full moon shining from a clear sky, she saw him in all his radiant beauty and alluring grace. Her heart was flooded by desire; she had a struggle to regain her scattered wits. But Hylas now leant over to one side to dip his ewer in: and as soon as the water was gurgling loudly round the ringing bronze she threw her left arm round his neck in her eagerness to kiss his gentle lips. Then with her right hand she drew his elbow down and plunged him in midstream…” (Argonautica 1. 1334 ff (trans. Rieu)) I don’t pretend to be an art critic but Waterhouse seems to me to have captured the spirit of this myth quite well, though perhaps multiplying the Naias to make a subliminal point to masculist Victorians that even an effete partner of Herakles could not have been overpowered by just one female. Though the girls are almost clones (as perhaps they might have appeared in such an exclusive sisterhood) there can be no mistaking the desirous longing in their eyes. What this painting emphatically does not depict is a perversion of the myth to suggest that Hylas is anything other than the victim of a sexually motivated abduction. Balthus’ dreaming girl is quite clearly just that and her pose is something every parent of a girl that age has seen on many occasions. As the curator on that occasion decided, interpretation is the responsibility of the viewer: an artist is required only to be truthful to their subject. In my opinion both Balthus and Waterhouse passed that test. I am far more concerned that it has become acceptable for self-appointed censors to attempt control others by imputing actions to thoughts that the censors have decided must be aroused in the circumstances they define. Thoughtcrime has crawled off the page and out of the screen into our reality.

    • THAT is similar to what occurred to me.
      In that Greek myth, the male character gets abducted by a
      group of female characters. So in what way does it have anything to do with the victimization of girls?

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