The Soul of the Rose was painted when Waterhouse was in his creative maturity; he was an artist established with patrons and public alike, who pursued his unique vision whilst adapting to modern precepts regarding style. Archetypally romantic, it is nevertheless executed with fluidity and verve, and leaves the crystalline imagery of the past century behind.
Waterhouse's title is loosely derived from Chaucer's dream poem, Romaunt of the Rose, itself adapted from the 13th-century French romance: Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris. The narrator embarks on a pilgrimage with the god of love, who leads him to a rose symbolizing perfect love. The poem had been treated by Waterhouse's early inspiration, Sir Edward-Burne Jones, in preparation for a tapestry. Burne-Jones depicts the rose personified as a young girl in an oil entitled The Heart of the Rose, (1889, Private collection; fig. 1). She embodies the beauty of the sentiment represented, and becomes a love object for the young poet.
Waterhouse's interpretation is characteristically ambiguous, perhaps linked only in terms of its generic medievalism. His lovely protagonist leans forward to smell a rose. Her half-closed eyes suggest a degree of elective power, as if she hopes that the flower's scent will body forth some desired secret. Though she may still represent the object of another's desire, we are also invited to imagine her psychology, and to suppose a hidden narrative of thwarted or aspiring love. She is a participant rather than a passive symbol.
Waterhouse's setting appears to be a walled Tuscan garden, evocative of paintings by 14th-century artists such as Fra Angelico. Both landscape and cultural heritage would have been familiar to Waterhouse who was born in Rome and returned to Italy often as an adult. The paradox of the cloistered garden - something abundant yet enclosed - suits Waterhouse's theme well. Just as the rose's scent acts as a heady agent, emblematic of love's intensity, the limits of the garden reflect the concentration of experience implied by the story.
A study for The Soul of the Rose (Private collection) bears little resemblance to the finished picture; showing a dark-haired girl, plainly dressed, leaning up to smell the flower. In executing the present oil, Waterhouse wrought his conception into something more majestic; the model's red hair, brocade gown, and comparative maturity (she is a young woman, not a girl) associate her more naturally with the courtly love tradition - progenitor of both Chaucer's poem and its French source.
The picture belongs to a series of single-figure images that Waterhouse rendered in the early 1900s, featuring dark or red-haired models. Scarce documentation makes it frustratingly hard to identify Waterhouse's sitters. Critics have commented upon their vitality, compared - for example - to Burne-Jones' more lifeless ideal. The red-haired beauty in The Soul of the Rose may be Miss Muriel Foster, who sat for Waterhouse on a number of occasions. It has also been suggested that the model for this painting may have been the red-haired, eighteen-year-old Beatrice Ethel Hackman (1889-1954) (also known as Beatrice Ethel Flaxman), who appears to have sat for Waterhouse between 1906 and 1916.
The angle of the model's head and neck recurs, motif-like, throughout Waterhouse's oeuvre; for example, in Ophelia (1894, Private collection; fig. 2) and Mariana in the South (1897, Private collection). It is interesting to consider this in relation to George Frederic Watts's portrait of his young bride, Ellen Terry, Choosing (1864, National Portrait Gallery, London; fig. 3). The picture, a Royal Academy exhibit, would have been familiar to Waterhouse as it belonged to his great patron, the financier Alexander Henderson, later the first Baron Faringdon. Faringdon first took Waterhouse under his wing in the late 1890s, and introduced him to his younger brothers: Mr. H. W. Henderson and Mr. (later Sir) Brodie Henderson. Between them they purchased more than 50 paintings. The Soul of the Rose was formerly in the collection of Sir Brodie Henderson.
The Faringdons' patronage was well-timed. In the early 1900s change was afoot in the arts. Waterhouse's romantic visions seemed overly idealistic to strident modernists. However, he inspired some loyal adherents. A. L. Baldry, in his 1911 piece for the Studio, wrote: 'The modern feeling is evident enough in his work, but it is an intellectual modernity that he professes and one that he applies in a manner markedly individual'. Baldry was presumably referring to Waterhouse's pictorial alphabet, which could never be mistaken for anyone else's. Such individuality equaled modernity. Rose Sketchley, in her 1909 piece for the Art Annual, developed a redemptive interpretation of Waterhouse's Arcadian imagery: seeing 'the analogy of the unfolding of the rose through earth, as the soul through suffering'. Her focus on the educative power of experience is essentially a reworking of the age-old theme of knowledge gained at the expense of innocence, couched in metaphysical terms in keeping with the 20th-century obsession with individual psychology.
It is perhaps wrong to overcomplicate Waterhouse's thematic association of women with flowers. From images of metamorphosis (see Apollo and Daphne, 1908, Private Collection, Trippi, loc. cit., p. 194) to the 'Persephone' series (see A Song of Springtime, 1913, Private Collection, Trippi, op. cit., p. 200), Waterhouse's main thesis linked women and nature through the concept of regeneration. If his theme was long-established, however, his technique was modern, and had evolved considerably over the years. Early pictures such as Saint Eulalia (1885, Tate Britain, London) are glacial, polished - more in the manner of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. In contrast, viewed from a stylistic point of view, the artist's late work relates directly to French Impressionism and its British counterparts. Looser in touch, it exploits the clash of color and texture apparent when materials are viewed en plein air.
Indeed, The Soul of the Rose shows Waterhouse balancing detail and abstraction, precision and softness, with consummate skill. The background building, for example, is realized with little tonal depth, to render it subsidiary to the foreground figure. Where Waterhouse wishes our eye to focus - for example on the model's hands - he works with deft exactitude. It is his sensuous, instinctive handling of his medium, coupled with the luminosity of his romantic heroines, which ensures the essential timelessness of Waterhouse's art.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his help in preparing this catalogue entry and to Scott Buckle for providing information about Beatrice Hackman as the possible model for this work.