John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British, 1849-1917) Sketch for 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' or Narcissus

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Lot 85
John William Waterhouse, RA, RI
(British, 1849-1917)
Sketch for 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' or Narcissus

Sold for £ 62,562 (US$ 88,116) inc. premium
John William Waterhouse, RA, RI (British, 1849-1917)
Sketch for 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' or Narcissus
indistinctly signed 'J W Waterhouse' (lower right)
oil on canvas
68.2 x 50.5cm (26 7/8 x 19 7/8in).


  • Provenance
    Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 15 March 1983, lot 75, as Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May - sketch.
    Private collection, UK.

    Between 1909 and 1914, John William Waterhouse produced approximately one dozen paintings of women picking flowers. These are in varying stages of completion: some were signed, dated, and exhibited, while others have come down to us unfinished and untitled by the artist.

    At first glance, all appear to be without narrative, in keeping with the Edwardian taste for idyllic scenes of women in nature. Appreciation of them need go no further, but in fact most relate to the ancient Greek myth of Persephone (Proserpine in Latin), a supremely Romantic narrative familiar to Waterhouse's classically educated audience. It was while she was gathering flowers in Sicily's Vale of Enna that Hades (Pluto) carried Persephone down to his infernal realm. Her distraught mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, caused vegetation to wither, prompting her father Zeus to rule that Persephone should be transformed into the queen of Hades for the winter—essentially a death sentence—and returned to Demeter every spring. Rather than showing Persephone dragged into the chasm, as other artists had, Waterhouse characteristically emphasized the beauty and fertility that aroused Hades in the first place.

    This series, then, epitomizes an important aspect of late Pre-Raphaelitism - the rendering of a spiritually significant theme, in this case a Greek myth about the immortality assured by natural regeneration. Long fascinated with what Shelley called 'the loveliness of terror', Waterhouse had already explored key aspects of Persephone's story—the abduction and transformation of such flower-picking women as Flora, the fleeting passage of flowers' beauty, and figures who endured visits to Hades, such as Psyche. Waterhouse encountered Persephone throughout the literary canon, from Homer and Ovid to Milton, Shelley, Swinburne, and Pater. Ruskin called her the 'Greek Flora' and believed that Greeks 'saw that the force and use of the flower was only in its death.'

    In the Christmas 1909 number of The Art Journal, the writer Rose E.D. Sketchley repeatedly linked Waterhouse's oeuvre with 'the last poem of living paganism', De Raptu Proserpinae (The Rape of Persephone), written in the manner of Ovid by Claudian (AD 370-404). Singing as she wove a tapestry in nature's colours, Persephone was one of the sources that inspired Tennyson to write The Lady of Shalott, a story Waterhouse imagined so famously. Thus it makes sense that Waterhouse decorated the title page of his own Tennyson volume with a pencil sketch of Persephone bending down to pick flowers (Michael Titterington Collection). As he conceived this drawing, Waterhouse surely had in mind a well-known work by his Pre-Raphaelite forerunner Edward Burne-Jones, The March Marigold of 1870 (fig 1, private collection).

    Many of Waterhouse's Persephone paintings offer expansive Arcadian landscapes, painted broadly in a bright palette that suggests fresh air but not dazzling sunshine and deep shade. In 1909 Waterhouse completed the first of them, 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' (fig 2) for his patron Brodie Henderson. This shows Persephone and a companion in the foreground, with two more maidens visible in the distance. In 1910 the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy 'Spring Spreads One Green Lap of Flowers' — a girl kneeling to pick flowers alone. Completed in 1912 was Narcissus, which shows a woman bending forward to pick flowers; it was narcissi that Persephone was picking when she was abducted. The series closed in 1914 with the kneeling Flora, whose title, though pertinent to the interrelationship of women and flowers, would more correctly have been Persephone. Possibly due to the start of World War I, Waterhouse's subsequent pictures returned to the more recognisable—arguably more British—narratives of the early Pre-Raphaelites, including Tristram and Isolde and Miranda—The Tempest.

    We know that Waterhouse thought carefully about the Persephone pictures because many preparatory works have come down to us. For example, there is a pencil study that shows the girl using her other arm to pick flowers (Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan Collection).

    In his day, critics praised Waterhouse's capacity to compose without exhaustive preparations. On canvas, the design's outlines would first be brushed in with thin, dark oil paint on the canvas's white ground; the forms were then laid in with neutral colour, before the virtuoso flesh painting began. Because the present oil painting was not fully worked up, it offers valuable insights on how Waterhouse elaborated the face and costume before tackling the jewel-like flowers and verdant landscape. This picture also underscores how intently Waterhouse wanted to get his primary figure "right"; here he focuses tightly on her to maximize the expressivity of her pose.

    Because it shows the girl reaching down with her right arm, the present picture could have been made in anticipation of either 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' (1909) or Narcissus (1912) — or both. The fact that Waterhouse signed it suggests he may have had it sitting in his studio when he presented it to someone, perhaps a visitor.

    Characteristic Waterhouse touches appear across the surface. Most striking are the flowers, which hover magically in the girl's hand and in the grass, and the stream reminding viewers that water is the feminine element. Notice, too, the tree trunks visible at left and top, evidence of Waterhouse's ongoing fascination with trees as connectors of the upper and lower realms. Sketchley characterised the Symbolism of such decorative landscapes as 'a region where all things are poetical symbols. The trees standing in thick groves against the sky, the streams and dainty fountains in the flowered grass... are vehicles of a poetical idea.'

    Though we do not know her name, this model epitomises Waterhouse's ideal female type and can be related to contemporary works by him. She is clearly painted from the favourite model who posed for 'Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May' (1909) and Penelope and her Suitors (1912).

    The uncannily modern beauty of Waterhouse's women endures, still drawing admirers to his paintings, whatever their subject or degree of completion.

    We are grateful to Peter Trippi for compiling this catalogue entry.
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