Friday, June 25, 2010
John William Waterhouse - Flora
signed l.l.: J.W. Waterhouse
53 by 38cm., 21 by 15in.
ESTIMATE 70,000 - 100,000 GBP
Lot Sold. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 145,250 GBP
A beautiful young girl, slight of build and with long sleek hair, big watery eyes and
delicate features, of a type that would not be out of place in the fashion magazines of the twenty-first century; this is what has become known as the 'Waterhouse Girl'.
As stereotyped as the 'Stunners' of Rossetti's art earlier in the century, the models for Waterhouse's paintings from the early 1890s onwards played a pivotal role in the changing conception of female beauty, making way for the movie starlets of the early twentieth century. Similar to the fragile angels of Burne-Jones and his followers, they are more warm-blooded and perhaps closer to the woman painted by one of Waterhouse's contemporaries George Clausen. However, whilst Clausen painted pretty
models dressed for field work toiling on the land or standing on the thresholds of farmhouses, Waterhouse painted them as the naiads, enchantresses and tormented
medieval maidens of mythology and literature. He sought to depict the fragility and
delicate sexual allure of the women that dwelt between the worlds of the gods and the
mortals, the nymphs and mermaids that seduced shepherds and fishermen or the
princesses carried off by lustful Gods while they gather flowers or sleep beside the sea.
Two of his most powerful pictures in this vein are Flora and the Zephyrs (Private
Collection) and Ariadne (private collection) both painted in 1898, large paintings in
which young women are either being awakened from sleep by amorous suitors or soon
to be so. Bleary-eyed from her slumbers Flora awakes, stretches and is lifted upwards
by the arms of the wind gods while Ariadne is caught in a dream-world unaware of the
approach of Bacchus heralded by prowling panthers. For both of these pictures
Waterhouse painted girls with their hands raised to their hair, echoing the poses
depicted in Ophelia of 1894 (private collection) Hylas and the Nymphs of 1896
(Manchester City Art Gallery), Marianna in the South of 1897 (Hammersmith and
Fulham Libraries) and numerous later paintings.
Flora and the Zephyrs took its subject from Ovid's Fasti, a verse chronicle of the
Roman calendar incorporating the myths and legends of Rome associated with specific
times of year. Fasti V, vv.195-375 is recounted by Flora herself; 'I who am called Flora was formerly Chloris... a nymph of the happy fields where, as you have heard, dwelt fortunate men of old. Modesty shrinks from describing my figure; but it procured the hand of a god for my mother's daughter. 'Twas spring, and I was roaming; Zephyr caught sight of me; I retired; he pursued and I fled; but he was the stronger, and Boreas had given his brother full right of rape by daring to carry off the prize for the house of Erechtheus. However, he made amends for his violence by giving me the name of bride, and in my marriage-bed I have naught to complain of.' Waterhouse painted the moment when Zephyr first fell in love with the nymph as she gathered flowers in a garden. He flew down through the laurel trees with his winged companions and carried her away with a girdle made of white roses. Flora (or Chloris) is shown holding her hair as it is lifted upwards by the wind's gentle gusts and her expression is a combination of alarm and excitement. As a commentator wrote when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy; 'His art is to concentrate himself on the pulse of the myth, and to make his whole picture throb with unison.' (Art Journal, 1898, p.176) Flora and the Zephyrs was well received at the exhibition and became part of the collection of the mining engineer George McCulloch.
The subject of Flora and the connection between women and flowers, the fertility of
nature and the pagan idea of rebirth was one that fascinated Waterhouse and was the
subject of many pictures. Flora's mythology appears to have obsessed him and he
painted pictures that depict her specifically such as Flora and the Zephyrs and also
Boreas (private collection), the everyday historical worship of her in ancient times such as Flora of 1891 (private collection) and as Symbolist musings on the theme of spring's awakening such as A Song of Springtime and Narcissus of 1913 (private collections).
The allegorical connection between women and flowers linked the subject of Flora with
that of Persephone's return from the underworld and in a reversal of roles, Adonis'
reawakening amid a garden of anemones that had grown from his blood (also the
subject of a painting by Waterhouse). This awakening with the opening of a flower
suggests an erotic charge, the powerful sexual element that gives Waterhouse's most
successful art its compelling attraction.
This beautiful drawing relates to the central figure in Flora and the Zephyrs but may
also have influenced Ariadne, Waterhouse's depiction of the Minoan princess
abandoned by the hero Theseus on the island of Naxos. Although a fine draughtsman,
few drawings by Waterhouse of this quality have survived and although the subjects he
chose were those favoured by earlier generations of painters, his draughtsmanship
demonstrated that he was very much an artist of his time. Energetic, confident and
expressive this drawing shows that Waterhouse's technical skill was remarkable.