John William Waterhouse, R.A., R.I.
- John William Waterhouse, R.A., R.I.
- signed l.r.: J. W. Waterhouse
- oil on canvas
- 73 by 33 cm., 28 ¾ by 13 in.
Sold by Fildes to Agnew's in 1894;
Gooden & Fox, London, where purchased by Captain J. A. Harvey in 1912;
Marshall Field & Company, Chicago c.1950 where purchased by the uncle of the private collector that consigned it to Sotheby's, 20 April 2005, lot 96;
Claude Phillips, Academy, 9 May 1891, p. 447;
R.E.D. Sketchley, 'The Art of J. W. Waterhouse', in Art Journal, Christmas number, 1909, p. 7;
Anthony Hobson, The Art and Life of J.W. Waterhouse, 1849-1917, 1980, cat. no. 80, pp. 52-53, 183, 183, illustrated p. 53;
Anthony Hobson, J. W. Waterhouse, 1989, p. 41;
Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, 2002, pp. 99-101, illustrated p. 100
'You start in April and cross to the time of May
One has you as it leaves, one as it comes
Since the edges of these months are yours and defer
To you, either of them suits your praises.
The Circus continues and the theatre's lauded palm,
Let this song, too, join the Circus spectacle.'
Ovid, Fasti (V.185-190)
A beautiful young maiden is seated on a marble bench beneath a vine of grapes and beside a roadside shrine. She has been arranging irises and narcissi as offerings to the Roman goddess of flowers and gardens Flora, identified by the bronze votive statue of a garlanded female figure. She holds a heart-shaped fan in her hand and from her dreamy expression and blushed cheeks it seems that she has been distracted from her task by a romantic daydream. It was the connection between girls and flowers that was to become the predominant theme of Waterhouse's oeuvre, in paintings of Persephone and her handmaidens wandering through verdant flower-filled meadows and of the goddess Flora herself being abducted by a wind god amid voluptuous flower blooms. In the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses Flora was a relatively minor fertility deity, who personified the coming of spring. It is likely that Waterhouse's maiden is celebrating the Floralia (Florifertum) festivities of April and May when the flowers he chose to depict are in bloom and the grape vines are bare of fruit. The festival began in Rome in 238 B.C. to persuade the goddess Flora into protecting the blossoms, but fell out of favour and was discontinued until 173 B.C., when the Roman senate, concerned with wind, hail, and other damage to the flowers, ordered that Flora's celebration be reinstated. At this time the festival was known as the Ludi Florales and was celebrated by the decorating of shrines, the wearing of floral wreaths and casting of flowers in the streets and culminated in the sowing of seeds and releasing of animals in the Circus Maximus. During the Floralia, the people of Rome wore colourful costume rather than their usual white dress and Waterhouse may have been alluding to his with the golden stola (a classical item of dress used to hold women's togas in place) tied in a bow tied around the girl's waist to brighten her otherwise modest costume. The fact that she is barefoot perhaps suggests that she has already begun to dance to the music of the Floralia.
The most famous Victorian painting of the Floralia festivities is Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Spring (John Paul Getty Museum, Malibu), a painting that took him four years to complete and became one of his most famous paintings. Unlike Alma-Tadema who painted an exuberant crowd scene, Waterhouse pared the subject to a quieter and more intimate composition, concentrating on the calm young girl and her solitary devotion. The two modern experts on Waterhouse's work have described Flora as 'calmly beautiful' (Anthony Hobson, J. W. Waterhouse, 1889, p. 41) and possessed of 'much of the technical charm of Alma-Tadema, yet with a greater vitality' (Peter Trippi, J. W. Waterhouse, 2002, p. 99).
Flora was one of a small number of paintings that were inspired by a trip made by Waterhouse to the island of Capri in 1890, when he made sketches for paintings, the most famous being An Alfresco Toilet which was in the collection of the soap manufacturer Lord Leverhulme. The sojourn was probably financed by the sale of two of Waterhouse's most acclaimed paintings Ophelia (Lord Lloyd Webber collection) and The Lady of Shallot (Tate) both painted in 1889. It is likely that although studies for the background of Flora were been made on Capri, the figure drawings were made after Waterhouse's return to his London studio. The model that posed for the painting was the delicately-featured young girl that entered Waterhouse's art around this time. This unnamed model had the most profound influence upon the artist's ideal of feminine beauty and possible names have been suggested for her, a firm identification has not yet been proved. Her first appearance was probably for Ophelia of 1889 (it has been suggested that the model for The Lady of Shallot was the artist's sister Jessie) and it is undoubtedly her features that appear in the series of pictures of the 1890s, including Circe Invidiosa (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide) and Danae (present whereabouts unknown) of 1892, A Hamadryad (Plymouth Art Gallery) of 1893, St Cecilia (Lord Lloyd Webber collection) of 1895, Pandora (Lord Lloyd Webber collection) and Hylas and the Nymphs (Manchester City Art Gallery) of 1896. For Flora Waterhouse painted the gamine young model dressed in a white toga of thin cotton that reveals tantalising glimpses of her breasts and long pale legs beneath, creating a subtle eroticism which simultaneously suggests virginal purity and alluring beauty. The painting depicts the budding beauty of womanhood and young love amid a beautiful setting suggestive of sunshine and warmth.
The overall composition and subject of Flora was based upon Waterhouse's Offerings (sold in these rooms, 27 June 2006, lot 17) which was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1879. The subject of devotional sacrifice was also pictured in The Household Gods of 1880 (Christie's, 4 November 1994, lot 100) which was part of the collection of the famous engineer Sir John Aird, and presumably also Sweet Offerings exhibited at the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition in 1882 (present whereabouts unknown). In 1890 Waterhouse returned to the subject of young girls making offerings of flowers at public shrines and painted the present picture and at least two versions of a composition entitled Arranging Flowers of c.1890 (FIG 2). The same lissom young red-haired model was used for Flora and Arranging Flowers dressed in a loose toga tied at the waist and with bare feet. In 1895 she also posed for a medieval variant of the theme entitled The Shrine (private collection).
The first owner of Flora was the artist Luke Fildes, who exhibited The Doctor (Tate) in 1890, the same year that the present picture was painted. The critical success of The Doctor brought Fildes immediate fame and wealth and it seems that Flora was one of his first purchases he made to celebrate his new-found success.