John William Waterhouse, born in 1849, was the son of a painter and had an extensive knowledge of classical art. He was a member of the Royal Academy and enjoyed great success throughout his career.
His favourite subject was woman, depicted as a female magician or an enchantress, painted alone in an interior, sharply delineated in highly contrasted colours to highlight her bewitching nature. In this painting, The Crystal Ball, dating from 1902, the female magician corresponds perfectly to his ideal type with her firm chin, small mouth, and slender body. Her dark hair, parted in the middle and coiled at the sides, highlights her pale complexion.
Her embroidered robe places the scene in the Middle Ages. The young woman is performing a ritual: her book of spells is open, while the skull, and the snake motifs on her robe, are redolent of occult forces.
In the Victorian period, heroines were depicted in contrasting forms: as pure heroines or femmes fatales, victims or cruel temptresses. Waterhouse’s enchantresses reflect this complexity: with their undeniable erotic charge, they are by turns victims – of a spell, an impossible love – or else evil, taking on the appearance of fragile fairies who cast a deathly spell on others.
The context for the creation of this painting echoes this idea, as The Crystal Ball had a pendant painting, today known only from a 1909 photograph, showing a woman leaning forward, in which a missal and flowers echo the witch’s crystal ball.