The problem with Waterhouse’s eroticism (Frank Whitford in the TLS, 7 Aug 09, has it right) is that it's not very erotic: or that it goes through the motions of erotic representation (‘sexy young girls lounging in revealing shifts, maidens whispering promises of adulterous encounters to handsome knights’ is Whitford's summary) without actually generating erotic affect.
Most of Waterhouse’s pictures are dominated by women who do their best to ensnare men. Most are very young, pale-skinned , and have small firm breasts with rose-pink nipples. Many are naked or barely clothed in semi-transparent or suggestively revealing robes. … Women like these are perhaps fatales in a literary sense, but they are postulant nuns by comparison with, say, Franz von Stuck’s “Sin” (1893) or Gustrav Klimt’s “Judith” (1901) … It is difficult to believe that the love Waterhouse’s women supposedly inspire would be lethal. It’s difficult to worry about the link, widely speculated on at the time, between the female libido and the collapse of masculine moral reserve.Indeed it is. So what is the problem, here? Part of me reacts on a literal level—which is, of course, one of the ways the masculine libido works. “Hylas and the Nymphs” is a painting about sexual temptation; the nymphs are all very pretty and are all actively enticing the handsome young hero into their pond (‘into’ in Whitford’s words, ‘a pool choked with waterlilies where he will obviously drown, no doubt happily’). But the pool is very obviously an English pool, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it'll be chilly. That’s not erotic. I wonder if there’s a culture-shift in the location of pornography: a taste for alfresco sex, nine times out of ten, depends upon a warm climate—on the beach in the tropics, say. In autumnal England it is less appealing. Has the older eroticisation of the indoors (doing it on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire—like the Feelie in Brave New World) passed, largely, from cultural logic? Global travel and tourism, a more general libidinous investment in ‘the Environment’ and, who knows, central heating have changed the location of ideal sensual encounter. Heat isn’t much in use as a euphemism for sexual desire nowadays, except when we’re talking about animals—because animals have to copulate outdoors.
Maybe its not that; perhaps its simply that Waterhouse’s essential melancholy is a minority erotic taste: the majority prefer positive, bouncy and bubbly. Fuck’em.