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John William Waterhouse, R.A. (1849-1917)
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
John William Waterhouse, R.A. (1849-1917)

Flora

Details
John William Waterhouse, R.A. (1849-1917)
Flora
signed 'J.W.Waterhouse' (lower left)
black chalk on buff paper
23 ¼ x 18 in. (59 x 45.7 cm.)
Provenance
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 13 July 2010, lot 38.

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Clare Keiller
Clare Keiller

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Lot Essay

The chalk drawing Flora is a beautiful and rare survival from the lengthy evolution of one of J.W. Waterhouse’s largest and most complex paintings. In the very prime of his career, he premiered Flora and the Zephyrs (fig. 1) at the Royal Academy’s 1898 Summer Exhibition, by which time it had already been acquired by the celebrated collector George McCulloch.

In contrast to his contemporary Frederic Leighton, P.R.A., who left behind more than 2,000 working drawings, fewer than 150 of Waterhouse’s preparatory drawings are known, most depicting a model’s head drawn in chalk or charcoal. Close study of Waterhouse’s oil paintings reveals that he regularly made compositional changes at the easel, but because his female protagonists were so crucial to the emotional immediacy of his scenes, he created more preparatory drawings of them than of any other motif.

Flora and the Zephyrs was inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s renowned Allegory of Spring (Primavera), which Waterhouse had surely admired during visits to Florence (fig. 2). For their subject Botticelli and Waterhouse both turned to Ovid, who chronicled the abduction of the nymph Chloris by Zephyrus, the benevolent west wind, and his followers. She was transformed into Flora, Roman goddess of flowers, fruit, and spring. Botticelli shows, to the right of Flora casting her petals, her former self abducted by Zephyrus. Waterhouse’s composition offers various echoes, most obviously through Flora’s upward gaze and the figures' proximity to the viewer. Both painters present a tapestry-like landscape of flower-strewn grass, though Waterhouse added the meandering stream often found in Renaissance art. Gathering flowers by a fountain, Waterhouse’s heroine and her attendants are terrified by the beating of wings. These maidens seem almost to be sisters, so similar are they in appearance, and the zephyrs are even more identical.

Flora is a beautiful object of desire, and thus the composition centres on the gaze she exchanges with Zephyrus, who kisses her arm passionately. Her expression signals her newfound sexual awareness as Zephyrus wraps her with a garland of white roses. The present drawing must date from late in the painting’s development, as Flora’s gaze and pose align closely with the final oil version. Another earlier charcoal study (Private Collection) shows Flora seemingly preparing to shout in fear as she looks directly at the viewer. And in a subsequent oil sketch (Private Collection), Flora regards Zephyrus obliquely. Here, however, she looks up directly at him, with her arms arranged to convey both instinctive self-defence and openness to Zephyrus’s approach, emphasising her ample bust.

In 1898 The Times saw Flora and her attendants as distinctly English in appearance, and the Spectator argued that their natural beauty evoked ‘the spirit of the early Renaissance more truly than to construct a sham primitiveness ... Woebegone people we too often see in ideal pictures.’ This critic perceived correctly how Waterhouse’s lively brushwork and flushed cheeks differed significantly from the pallid linearity of Burne-Jones’s disciples, who also revered Botticelli.

To describe Waterhouse’s adolescent figures, the late twentieth-century biographer, Anthony Hobson, coined the phrase jeune fille fatale, probably inspired by the critic M.H. Spielmann’s praise in 1898 of ‘a sweet girl-fatalist’. Spielmann was referring to Flora and and also to Ariadne, which Waterhouse premiered in the same year. Illustrated here (fig. 3) is a photograph of Waterhouse putting the finishing touches on both paintings in his Primrose Hill studio.

This drawing of Flora is an iconic example of Waterhouse’s jeune fille fatale, a reminder of how deftly he combined sensuality with innocence in a way that delights viewers as much today as it did in his heyday.

We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
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