Waterhouse plundered the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans for tales of metamorphosis, betrayal, enchantment and transgression. However his depiction of the Mediterranean legends was an Englishman’s and his romances are usually firmly rooted amid a very British idyll. His models resemble the modern girls and boys of nineteenth century London more than the demi-gods and nymphs of Sparta and Rome. His paintings are easy to understand and relate to as they seem to depict ordinary humans – albeit particularly young and beautiful ones. As Waterhouse’s latest biographer Peter Trippi has observed; ‘Waterhouse’s appeal also derives, in large part, from his subjects. Whatever their literary sources, mystical experiences of emotional or physical transformation clearly moved Waterhouse… Many viewers take pleasure in the myths and poems that Waterhouse illustrated. Although a shrinking percentage of schoolchildren are taught mythology, the universality of human experience reflected by Greek myth reassures readers worldwide as it did Waterhouse.’ (Peter Trippi, J.W. Waterhouse, 2002, pp.235-236)
According to Pindar and Ovid Phyllis was a Princess of Thrace, a kingdom that had been allied to the Trojans during the bloody war. On his return voyage to Athens, Demophoön the son of Phaedra and the hero Theseus, stopped at Thrace and fell in love with the beautiful Phyllis. They became betrothed but on the day after their marriage Demophoön returned to his homeland, promising to soon return for Phyllis. Inheriting a wandering nature from his father, Demophoön tarried on the island of Cyprus. Believing that she had been forsaken, the grief-stricken and impatient Princess killed herself after only one month of waiting for her beloved. Pallas Athena the Goddess of Wisdom took pity on the bereft girl’s death and turned her lifeless body into an almond tree which grew tall and strong from her tomb but never bore blossom. Demophoön returned to the shores of Thrace to reclaim his wife but she was no-where to be found. He roamed the countryside looking for Phyllis until he eventually happened upon her tomb upon which was a bitter recrimination that blamed him for her death. Consumed by grief and guilt, Demophoön fell to his knees before her epitaph and his tears fell upon the ground at the base of the almond tree which began to burst into flower as life returned to the body of the girl trapped within. The bark tore open and Phyllis appeared from the heart of the tree where she had been in stasis.
Waterhouse painted the tale of Phyllis and Demophoön in a picture of 1907 (private collection), in which he kneels amongst crocuses that have grown around the maiden’s tomb. The present picture appears to depict the same subject and whilst it is now a single-figure subject, her leaning gesture suggests that she may have originally been accompanied by Demophoön. Waterhouse would often allow his compositions to emerge on the canvas, sketching in paint and building up the finish. He has begun to suggest the city of Thrace in the background, over which a large temple looms with towering classical columns which identifies the subject as set in antiquity.
The element of a woman emerging from the wood of a tree had been depicted by Waterhouse in his A Hamadryad of 1893 (Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery) and in Echo and Narcissus of 1903 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). This motif of a nude girl emerging from a blossoming tree may be traceable back to a picture by Sir Edward Burne-Jones depicting the myth of Phyllis, The Tree of Forgiveness painted in 1882 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). However the pose appears to have been inspired by a series of pictures by Waterhouse depicting a very different, medieval subject of a maiden gathering flowers. The most finished of these is a delightful watercolour entitled Spring – The Flower Picker painted c.1900 (Collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber) but there is also a small oil version and a related sketch. The present picture has become known as The Flower Picker because of the similarity in pose to the earlier work but there seems no reason to think that she is picking flowers.
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