Thisbe: The Story that Inspired Romeo and Juliet

As people always say, a picture paints a thousand words. There’s always a fascinating story of a painting if we know what to look at. We have invited Arne W. Everwijn, Christie’s Director of 19th Century European Art to tell us a story behind John William Waterhouse’s seminal work Thisbe.

Maybe we are not familiar with the story of Thisbe but it is the base of a classic tragedy that we have all heard of  – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. This John William Waterhouse painting recounts the story of two ill-fated lovers, Thisbe and Pyramus.


Thisbe exchanges vows of fidelity with her lover through a crack in the wall

Thisbe depicts a scene from one of Waterhouse (1849-1917)’s favourite sources, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Book IV, the Roman author sets his story in ancient Babylon, where the maiden Thisbe falls in love with her neighbour, Pyramus. Their parents forbid the relationship, forcing them to exchange vows of fidelity through a crack in the wall shared by their families’ houses. This painting captured that moment.

The couple decided to elope with tragic consequences; agreeing to meet at Ninus's tomb, Thisbe arrived first but fleed when she saw a lioness approaching. Pyramus subsequently arrived and found the tracks of a lioness and Thisbe’s shawl. Believing that Thisbe is dead, Pyramus thrusted his sword into his belly, killing himself.

Arne W. Everwijn, Christie’s Director of 19th Century European Art

Thisbe returned and saw Pyramus's dead body, and also killed herself, their blood reddening the fruit of the white mulberry bush at which they were to meet; hence mulberries acquired their distinctive hue in perpetuity.

Does this tragedy sound familiar? Maybe it reminds you of the well-known story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1595, Shakespeare reworked the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe into Romeo and Juliet, transferring the action to medieval Verona.

John William Waterhouse. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

John William Waterhouse. Circe Invidiosa. Art Gallery of South Australia

John William Waterhouse’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil was sold for £1.15m

John William Waterhouse’s The Soul of the Rose was sold for £2.25m

John William Waterhouse was a member of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group that came together in celebration of colour and details. The group’s intention was to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by Mannerist artists.

The Pre-Raphaelites liked to get their inspiration from old literature and old poems. At the same time, they tried to incorporate flavours from the Orient or the Middle East into their works. For example, the present painting depicts a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the story is set in Babylon. But in the painting, Waterhouse also brought all these Oriental objects together to create the sense of exoticism.

The forms that punctuate the window’s transom in the background of the composition are Islamic, the tiles lining the right-hand wall are Ottoman, and the opus sectile flooring is late Roman. These are things that you obviously wouldn’t find in Babylon, but ultimately it’s about the atmosphere that Waterhouse created. When you google the story of Thisbe and Pyramu, this Waterhouse painting immediately comes up.

*This painting will be auctioned at Christie’s New York on 31 October 2018.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). Thisbe

Lot no.: 18
Created in: 1909
Size: 98.5 x 60.3cm

  • Lieutenant-Colonel Fairfax Rhodes (1845-1928), by 25 December 1909.
  • His sale; Sotheby’s, London, 11 July 1934, lot 126, as The Listener.
  • with Permain, acquired at the above sale.
  • William Randolph Hearst, Sr. (1863-1951), St. Donat's Castle, Wales by July 1946.
  • Private collection, Hove, acquired directly from the above.
  • Anonymous sale; Sotheby’s, London, 18 June 1985, lot 36, as Thisbe or The Listener.
  • with Whitford & Hughes, London, acquired at the above sale.
  • Private collection, UK, acquired from the above.

Estimate: US$1,800,000 - 2,500,000

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: European Art: Part I
Sale: 2018/10/31