John William

United Kingdom • 1849−1917

Manchester Art Gallery took down the painting of John William Waterhouse "Hylas and the Nymphs" to "encourage debate" about how such images should be displayed in the modern age. One of the most recognizable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings was removed from gallery's walls on Friday, January 26, 2018. Curators said that it would be temporarily replaced in order to get post reactions from public because of several sexual harassment scandals in the headlines.
“The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?” the gallery’s statement reads.


Painting of "Hylas and the Nymphs" (1896) depicts a scene from Greek Mythology where Nomia, a water nymph, lures Hylas, one of Heracles’ companions, to his watery grave. The seven mythical creatures in the painting are all shown as young naked women.

The painting was placed in a gallery area titled "In Pursuit of Beauty" next to other similar artworks, which contemporary art curator Clare Gannaway described as "very old-fashioned" because of depicting women as "either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales." 

Even postcards of the picture will be removed from sale in the museum shop during this takeover.

Manchester Art Gallery. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian

The act of taking down this painting was filmed and it would be a part of an exhibition by Sonia Boyce at the gallery in March. She is exploring “gender trouble” in painting and wider cultural context of the 19th century.

#MeToo impact

This art gallery decision was also influenced by the #MeToo movement against the objectification and exploitation of women. Clare Gannaway emphasized that the aim of the removal was to provoke debate, not to censor. "We want to have prompt conversation about how we display and interpret artworks with people. Let's challenge this Victorian fantasy!" 

"It wasn’t about denying the existence of particular artworks,” Gannaway said, according to The Guardian. “It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery.”

The museum left post-it notes at the empty space where the painting hung and encouraged visitors to write down their thoughts and paste it on the wall. Many people argue that it would be better to be asked about their thoughts without removing the painting, but, probably, it wouldn't sparked such a heated reaction.

Left: Post-it notes on at the place of painting in Manchester Art Gallery. Photo:

Comments on the notes are different and ranged from "Feminism gone mad!" to "Create or display art that reflects current ideologies alongside classical pieces. There is room for both." 

Artist Michael Browne attended the event where the painting was removed and said he was worried historical paintings may soon be completely replaced with more modern art.

“We don’t know how long the painting will be off the wall – it could be days, weeks, months. Unless there are protests it might never come back,” Browne said, according to The Guardian. “I know there are other works in the basement that are probably going to be deemed offensive for the same reasons and they are not going to see the light of day.”

"The Victorians are always getting criticised because they're supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it's us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians."

Waterhouse is one of the best-known pre-Raphaelites, but some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable and he has been accused of being one step away from a pornographer.

John William Waterhouse. Saint Eulalia
Saint Eulalia
1885, 188.6×117.5 cm
Reviewing the 2009 Royal Academy of Arts show devoted to Waterhouse, the critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote of a painting showing the death of St Eulalia, a 12-year-old girl: “I did not know whether to laugh, cry or call the police.”

Left: JW Waterhouse. "Saint Eulalia" 

Art gallery's curator said the painting would probably return to the gallery, but hopefully contextualised quite differently.

Title Illustration: detail of "Hylas and the Nymphs" by JW Waterhouse.

Based on materials The Guardian, BBC, Manchester Art GAllery