We thank Peter Trippi for providing additional catalogue information and his assistance in preparing this note.
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Artist as Narrator: Nineteenth Century Narrative Art in England and France, September 8-November 27, 2005, no. 97
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May beguiles the viewer with its otherworldly beauty. Set against a warm green ground and sunny sky, two maidens clad in blue-violet and pink robes bend to pluck delicate buds, grasping their bouquets close to their bodies. With such visual splendor the work’s narrative may seem secondary. Yet the composition’s date of 1909 and its similarity to a number of Waterhouse’s compositions in following years marks it as the first in a series inspired by the story of Persephone—in which the innocent girl, picking flowers on the plain of Enna, is abducted by Pluto; in anguish, her mother, the harvest goddess Demeter, curses the world with a prolonged winter broken only by her daughter’s return to earth each Spring.
By the late nineteenth century Persephone’s story and other tales from Classical mythology had been reimagined by contemporary authors, and provided inspiration for many Pre-Raphaelite painters. Indeed, Waterhouse had established his reputation in the 1880s and 1890s as a painter of literary and mythological subjects, frequently featuring beautiful young girls, but also introducing themes with tragic implications. Works such as Ophelia and Miranda (Shakespeare), The Lady of Shallot (Tennyson), Phyllis and Demophoön (Fig.1) and Apollo and Daphne (inspired by ancient mythology) solidified Waterhouse’s renown as one of the last and greatest subject painters of British art. Beyond the literary associations, these diverse subjects shared a linked theme of metamorphosis, in which a female figure left one state of existence for another. Waterhouse often allegorized this transformation by connecting women with the beauty, simplicity and decay of flowers; women and flowers alike possessed the “seeds of new growth” (Trippi, p. 197). From 1908 to 1914 flower-women assumed added significance for Waterhouse through a series of narrative-less images: in the first work titled Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May and its companion work The Soul of the Rose (fig. 2), he employed elements of Pre-Raphaelite medievalism or aesthetic portraits, complete with a Rossettian red-haired model dressed in medieval garb and set within dark, stained glassed interiors or sunny courtyards which suggested a setting from the Middle Ages or Renaissance.
The title of both the 1908 and present composition comes from the well-known poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time” which warns one must “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,/ Old time is still a-flying,/ And the same flower that smiles to-day,/ To-morrow will be dying" (as quoted in Trippi, p. 197). This warning is easily linked to the Persephone myth. And while Waterhouse did not write about the specific significance of the story, it is often cited in the article about him written by Rose E.D. Sketchley and published in the 1909 Art Annual. Sketchley believed Waterhouse’s work could be appreciated by any of those “who can feel the action of the spirit through the shape and course of Greek myth and medieval romance” (R.E.D. Sketchley, "J.W. Waterhouse, R.A.," The Art Journal Christmas Number, London, 1909, p. 18 as quoted in Trippi, p. 198). Given her frequent mention of it in the aritcle, it would appear “the last poem of living paganism,” De Raptu Prosephine (The Rape of Persephone), written in the manner of Ovid by Claudian (AD 370-404), was inspiration to Waterhouse. Sketchley named Waterhouse as a Romantic visionary by linking his mythic pictures to Persephone’s tale. In earlier works, Waterhouse had already explored key aspects of Persephone’s story, the abduction and transformation of flower-picking women, the fleeting passage of beauty and the celebrated figures who visited Hades such as Odysseus, Adonis, Orpheus and Psyche. Further he encountered Persephone throughout the literary canon, from Homer to Ovid to Milton, Shelley, and contemporary art theorists Algernon Swinburne and Water Pater (Trippi, p. 199).
While many of these works focused on the trauma of Persephone’s dark descent to Hades, the present work reveals little of her brutal fate. Waterhouse’s fields are bountiful with floral displays drenched in sunlight, suggesting only the unavoidable temptation of Persephone’s beauty, evoking her final moments of freedom before being spirited away. Tellingly, the maidens pick what appear to be narcissi and anemones. Representing rebirth, legend told that narcissi grew at the edge of the stream where Narcissus drowned; anemones, representing forsaken or forgotten love, sprang up from the ground from the drops of blood of the gored body of Aphrodite’s love Adonis. Other than these somewhat sinister symbols, Waterhouse allows his maidens to forage peacefully, their bodies gracefully bent as they pluck buds, the shifting tones of their togas suggesting gentle movement. Thick brushstrokes build the distant mountain ranges of hazy blue tones, while more intricate applications of paint carefully describe the individual petals in the maidens’ hands. Persephone’s form is carefully constructed in Academic technique, the clearly defined lines of her bare arms and shoulders combining with the heavy folds of her robes to give her strong substance and weight. Yet her sun-burnished skin and loosely painted hair and face suggest a softer, vulnerable beauty. In the shifts from precise detail and studied anatomy to impressionistic color tones and expressive textures, the present work reveals Waterhouse’s interest in allowing decorative forms, rather than explicit visual clues, to suggest narrative possibilities. Indeed the work’s very title avoids an explicit description of the compositon’s subject. In so doing, Gather ye Rosebuds while Ye May revives an appreciation of Waterhouse’s oeuvre, in which he experimented boldly with a myriad of elements and styles from academic conventions, the pictorial tenants of the Pre-Raphaelites, elements of Romanticism, Symbolism, and his own unique interests.
Despite its evident appeal, the work was never exhibited during Waterhouse’s lifetime and was long known only via a black and white photograph published in 1911. This article was fully illustrated largely by works in the collections of the brothers Henry William Henderson (1852-1931) and Brodie Haldane Henderson (1869-1936), who at the time possessed many of the artist’s most remarkable compositions, including the aforementioned Soul of the Rose, acquired directly from the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. Brodie was introduced to the artist by his older brother Alexander Henderson, yet another family member who actively collected the artist’s work. The family's shared fortune was the result of their incredible industry and success in newspapers, building railways, and other engineering projects. Such financial and personal influence over the artist causes Peter Trippi to theorize that Brodie may have directly commissioned Waterhouse to complete the present work, particularly as it has such an unusual format, the only known work with a curved top. Unframing the work reveals a painted gold ground suggesting the work was always intended to be this unique shape and to honor a particular request. It is yet to be discovered how the impressive Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May left the family’s collection as there was no organized estate or collection sale upon Brodie’s death. The works next known appearance in Canada makes sense, given the ties between Canada and Great Britain, and it is believed that the Henderson family had ancestral links to the provinces.
Please note the present work has been requested for the upcoming exhibition J. W. Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite which will take place in the Netherlands, England and Canada from December 2008 to January 2010.
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