Speaking with Flowers: John William Waterhouse, Myth, and the Victorian Mind

Lidia Moranelli

Throughout the Victorian era, an interest in botany and horticulture flourished and seduced the masses into producing what can be referred to as a language of flowers. Among the many who utilized this alluring symbolism were the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and their later successor, John William Waterhouse. The latter was an artist actively associated with the Royal Academy throughout his career, having an enduring prominence in art and captivating many with his depictions of women. Infused within these depictions were layers of complex botanical symbols and mythological references. This floral symbolism was appropriated by Waterhouse as a method to further enhance the profoundly theatrical qualities of his work. It reveals a strong relationship between the Victorian values that are seemingly infused within his art, as well as the personal concerns of the artist that transpire through his application of allegory.

Amidst the numerous publications on floral symbolism, there was a genuinely intense interest for the profound truths that nature offered. Flowers were adopted as tools for emotional expression, which were heavily associated with love, family and of nineteenth century Victorian life.1 However, prior to the avidity of this trend, flowers have displayed a provocative array of symbolism since the advent of the written word. The white Lily, as far back as 3,000 BCEin Minoan culture, was affiliated with motherhood. It was subsequently adopted in later Christian iconography in scenes of the Annunciation. In the Greco-Roman tradition, flower picking and flower representation became infused within myth, epitomized by the abduction of Persephone, who was captured by Hades while picking narcissus flowers. Regardless of the origin and evolution of botanic ideologies, Victorian culture came to perceive each individual flower as having rich implications.2 It was expected at this time that one became well versed in deciphering the language of flowers – a skill that holds little importance in our contemporary world. Its application in various forms saturated the arts, extending from romantic literature to Pre-Raphaelite painting. Consequently, Waterhouse simply appropriated a pantheon of botanic symbols that would have been commonly understood during his lifetime.

While the language of flowers may have been evident within his work, another prominent source of Waterhouse’s inspiration was his admiration for classical antiquity. Much of his early work emphasizes scenes of daily life from ancient Greece and Rome as it was, absent from any monumental events that marked history or myth. This could be attributed to classical excavations that were deployed during his lifetime, the most prominent being that of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In literature, this excitement was expressed in works such as Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, visually surfacing in the work of his contemporary, artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Much of Waterhouse’s early art is the direct culmination of these factors, commonly referencing floral content and the old pagan ways of life. Dolce Far Niente (Fig 1.), composed in 1880, emanates the admiration that the nineteenth century Victorians held for classical ideologies. The work depicts a woman reclining on a kline.3 To her left, yellow narcissus flowers delicately lay on a marble table that is reminiscent of a Pompeian interior. A colonnade in the background frames the work, creating the allusion of interior and exterior space. Her downward stare reveals a moment of restful introspection at day’s end. The narcissus flowers that dominate the right corner view are derived from the myth of Narcissus, who perished due to a curse that Nemesis had unleashed on him. As the personification of egotism, he was forced to spend the last of his days gazing into his reflection in a pond, hopelessly in love with himself. Echo had fallen in love with him but her feelings were unreciprocated. As consequence, she watched him until there was nothing left of her but her mirroring voice. When the nymphs tried to retrieve Narcissus’s body, a flower was all that remained of the boy, so they named it after him to remind us of his tragic tale.4 The classical associations of the narcissus flower could serve as a commentary on the woman portrayed in the artwork. It is suggestive of vanity and self-contemplation. However, like the basket of mixed flowers that lay on the bed alongside her, the meaning of the work is still ambiguous and indistinct. The flower basket, which attracts little interest in an accurate and clear depiction, is likely due to Waterhouse’s intention to portray general flowers as an archetypal symbol of feminine sensibilities rather than simply focusing on a type of flower. Horticulture, agriculture and more importantly containment have been connected to our constructs of female gender for centuries. Historians have clearly marked containers as the woman’s domain, stemming from the cultural progress that occurred during the Neolithic revolution.5Baskets and containment vessels were a woman’s invention, and thus utilized as an appropriate female symbol in visual imagery.

Dolce Far Niente also embodies a concern for materialism. This beautiful woman holds a fan of peacock feathers, reminiscent of the myth of Argos and Hera. The additional display of leopard fur at the base of her feet provocatively enhances the exoticism of the painting. Luxurious yellow fabrics envelop her body; her well groomed golden hair echoing classical literary descriptions of Demeter. Yellows and gold were traditionally attributed to this agricultural goddess, as poets describe her yellow hair as an allusion to ripened corn and fertility of the earth.6 Besides the numerous suggestive factors that could be read as classical references, the overall accurate portrayal of Grecian material culture reflects Waterhouse’s classical education that he likely obtained while visiting the excavations at Pompeii. Although the narcissus flowers may serve as a prominent factor in deciphering the identity of this woman, her actions may hold numerous implications as well. Historically, in terms of Greek vase painting, no respectable woman would ever be depicted reclining in an artwork. Such behavior was a direct indication of a hetaera, often portrayed reclining in scenes of a symposium. This eludes to the complexity of this piece – a woman of clear luxury in a moment of what may seem to be sheer nothingness – but in ways that are potentially contradictory and quite ambiguous. Waterhouse had also produced a smaller version ofDolce Far Niente one year prior to this monumental work. Once again adopting floral language, the piece references Aestheticism with the inclusion of the sunflower. This became a prominent motif and emblem of Aestheticism, inseparable from the movement’s identity.

Similarly, Waterhouse’s 1880 artwork, A Flower Stall (fig. 2), once again expresses interest in the mundane aspects of classical daily life. This concern was most likely derived from Dutch painter Alma-Tadema who may have strongly influenced Waterhouse as a young man. In 1868, Lawrence Alma-Tadema created The Flower Market, depicting a market street corner from antiquity. These similarities dominated much of Waterhouse’s early creations, although floral motifs remained distinct feature throughout his artistic career. A Flower Stall, in its totality, emphasizes the commercialized aspects of ancient life. A vendor sits attentively, casting aside her distaff – an emblem of female preoccupations. The prying eyes of three women gaze hungrily at a table enveloped by flowers, as the sun overhead is eclipsed by the ragged curtain above them. The background reflects a Roman setting, cobble stone streets and arches leading into the unknown, a seemingly mundane moment of action holding all the possibilities of the world. Due to the industrial revolution in Britain during Waterhouse’s lifetime, it is without a doubt that ideas of commercialization and capitalism were progressively developing. While reflecting on the economic component of culture, we can see a direct expression of the social concerns that must have been prominent in his environment. In addition, the nineteenth century was witness to the rise of the florist as a profession. Gardening, natural sciences, amateur botany and floral craft flourished in this period and was certainly provoked and aided by Darwinian ideologies. In addition, as curator Peter Trippi points out, A Flower Stall, “evokes the Aesthetic preoccupation with scent: one girl smells a rose, while another reaches across a field of fragrant blooms.”7Consequently, we are faced with two equal concerns: one that underlines trade and economy as a potential transaction, another that deals with the sensuous delights of flowers.

The rose, as commonly known today, has always been a symbolic representation of love, passion and desire; alluding to the supposed primary concerns of these young women. In the context of Greco-Roman culture, the rose was conceived in the form of a mythic narrative affixed to Chloris (also known as Flora). She was a deity of flowers who one day came upon the body of a dead nymph. Enchanted by her beauty and saddened by her death, she chose to transform her into a rose, which she then dubbed as the ruler and queen of all flowers. Roses, as well as pomegranates and narcissus, were also attributed to mythic tales of Persephone, eloquently executed in Rossetti’s work, Proserpine. In later centuries, the rose was affluently employed in a Christian context, becoming affiliated with the Virgin Mary.

The symbol of the rose was also employed in Waterhouse’s painting,The Soul of the Rose (Fig. 3), composed decades later. This work, however, emphasizes the effects that a flower may have on the sensibilities of the viewer. A woman tilts her neck backward in order to devour the essence of a rose. It is as if the viewer is struck by a synthetic experience in which the painting infuses our imagination with the real scent of the rose that we are experiencing by extension. The work is about a sheer moment of utter pleasure. Drawing on eroticism, the rose in this context becomes highly sexualized through the portrayal of her flushed red cheeks and desire for the rose’s scent. This work essentially conceptualizes womanhood as a flower, stemming from ancient traditions of mother goddess worship. Botanic symbolism referencing a woman’s virginity is common in even today’s popular culture as the act of “de-flowering”, blossoming and pollination has been seen time and time again. Christine Bradstreet suggests that this work may also have masturbatory implications.8 The rose may have come to metaphorically represent the female genitalia, as it is known as a mild aphrodisiac, heightening one’s libido when exposed to its scent. This, in turn, further alludes to the rose being a symbol of love, historically reminiscent of Venus, the goddess of love and passion. Although sexually charged, Waterhouse manages to apply it in a discreet manner that in ways heightens the experience to an almost spiritual level. As Peter Trippi suggests, the olfactory experience is a primordial one – one that is considered the most primitive of all the senses. For this reason, its lasting appeal can be understood.

An early study on Waterhouse by Rose Sketchley in 1909 acknowledges that there are also spiritual undertones in Waterhouse’s work: “art such as this has a ministry that reaches beyond sense, endows sensation itself with a more assured capacity of final fulfillment beyond-say, rather, through the visible end of the world.”9 Mysticism was a dominant theme in much of his most profound and captivating work. The Soul of the Rose reveals that sensory experience, by means of smell or sexuality, could serve as a mediator between actuality and a higher transcendental state. A woman portrayed smelling a rose was previously illustrated in his work The Shrine, further alluding to the relationship between sensory indulgence and spiritual experience. Both titles suggest this relation, in addition to Waterhouse’s choice of enclosed space. While enclosed gardens traditionally referenced domestic confinement, it may also reveal a space that is left untainted by the outside world, a spiritual dimension. Throughout history, the rose was also adopted and applied in occultist contexts, surfacing in the mystical sects of the Rosicrucians. The rosette stemmed from a long tradition of secrecy whereby one would be sworn to silence when standing beneath the rose, an expression now known as sub-rosa.10

Listening to my Sweet Pipings, completed in 1911, similarly reflects the underlying esoteric elements found in The Soul of the Rose. The woman lying in a field cloaked with dozens of white flowers appears to be monumental against the folkloric background that extends into the distance. Peter Trippi suggests that she is the personification of womanhood, unifying the elements of earth, air, fire and water. The Olympian creation myth describes the relevance of her role: “At the beginning of all things Mother Earth emerged from Chaos… she bore grass, flowers, and trees, with the beasts and birds proper to each.”11 The Victorians heralded a revival of pantheistic beliefs that may have occurred, as Trippi proposes, due to the effects of Darwinian Theory on conventional Christian faith. The fact that Gaia was the genesis of botany, not simply as creator but as one with her creation, likely inspired ideas of nature as having moral and spiritual truths. Listening to my Sweet Pipings was derived from Shelley’s Hymn to Pan, exemplifying Romanticism’s early concern for these same elements, decades earlier. A young Pan plays her a tune with his pipes. He is the epitome of mischievous innocence, but is clearly at peace alongside this maternal figure. The ending of the song, the poppy gently held in her hand as well as the sun slowly setting in the distance, is suggestive of death. Like everything in nature, life is subjected to the cycle of birth and death. The poppy is a natural narcotic, which if ingested in large amounts, can cause death. Pan, as the sylvan god of pastures and forests, wears the poppy in his hair alluding to the fact that he is unable to escape this aspect of life either. Rossetti’s work, Beata Beatrix, also applies the symbolic significance of the poppy in a funerary context. He describes the image as a red bird or a messenger of death descending upon Beatrix to drop a poppy in her hands. Traditionally, the poppy has been adopted in contexts dealing with death, memorial and condolence, exemplified by our contemporary celebration of Remembrance Day.12 However this explains the clearly somber and melancholic expression on the woman’s face, the work also clearly encompasses the lively and animistic components of the myth as well. The mother earth figure is enveloped by the life of the forest and plants that grow around her, which may well reflect Waterhouse’s personal beliefs as a conflicted Christian, inspired by a pagan past.

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that the flower language infused within Waterhouse`s work contributes greatly to the depth and theatricality of his paintings. Dolce Far Niente, A Flower Stall, The Soul of the Rose and Listening to my Sweet Pipings all contain botanic elements that strongly add to the viewer’s emotional and synesthetic arousal. However, the distance between the Victorian ways of life and today`s is quite extensive, leaving much of the old visual symbols partially forgotten. To acquire a more complete understanding of art produced by that culture, a greater understanding of their values through visual language aids in deciphering the layers of ideas that emanating from these pieces. As noted by Mancoff, who wrote about the significance of this phenomenon, “To the initiated, the flower speaks parables.”13


1 Beverly Seaton, Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s Proserpina and Other Victorian Flower Books (Jstor: Victorian Studies, 1985): 255-282.
2 See Seaton 2008: pp 1-4.The main focus of her research is the lengthy literary sources dedicated to the language of flowers as well as the notable art critic John Ruskin who formulated his own book on flower interpretation.
3 Kline was a type of ancient Greek couch that was usually used in the context of symposium.
4 All references and summaries I make on Greek Mythology are derived from the book: Edith Hamilton, Mythology (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942).
5 Ellen D. Reeder, Women in Classical Greece (Baltimore: The Walters Warts Gallery in association with Princeton UP, 1995) 20.
6 Donald A. MacKenzie, “Colour Symbolism” (Jstor: Folklore, 1922) 136-169.
7 Peter Trippi, J. W. Waterhouse (New York: Phaidon Press, 2002) 47.
8 Christina Bradstreet, Wicked with Roses: Floral Femininity and the Erotics of Scent. (Art Full Text: Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 2007).
9 Quote by Rose E.D Sketchley, Art Journal in 1909.
10 Ernst and Johanna Lehner, Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1960).
11 See Hamilton 1942.
12 Debra N. Mancoff, Flora Symbolica: flowers in Pre-Raphaelite art(Munich: Prestel, 2003).
13 See Mancoff, 2003.

Works Cited

Bradstreet, Christina. “Wicked with Roses: Floral Femininity and the Erotics of Scent.” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 6.1 (2007) n. ag. Art Full Text. Web. 10 Nov. 2009.
Coats, Alice M. The Treasury of Flowers. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1975.
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942.
Hares-Stryker, Carolyn, ed. An Anthology of Pre-Raphaelite Writings. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Hobson, Anthony. The Art & Life of J. W. Waterhouse: 1849-1917. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1980.
Lehner, Ernst and Lehner, Johanna. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Tress. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1960.
MacKenzie, Donald A. “Colour Symbolism.” Folklore, 33.2 (June 1922): 136-169. Jstor, 10 Nov. 2009.
Mancoff, Debra N. Flora Symbolica: Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art. Munich: Prestel, 2003.
Prettejohn, Elizabeth et al. J. W Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2008.
Reeder, Ellen D. Pandora: Women in Classical Greece. Baltimore: The Walters Arts Gallery in association with Princeton University Press, 1995.
Seaton, Beverly. “Considering the Lilies: Ruskin’s Proserpina and Other Victorian Flower Books.” Victorian Studies, 28.2 (Winter 1985): 255-282. Jstor, 17 Nov. 2009.
Shefer, Elaine. “Deverell, Rossetti, Siddal, and The Bird in the Cage.”The Art Bulletin, 67.3 (September 1985): 437-448. Jstor, 22 Nov. 2009.
Trippi, Peter. J. W. Waterhouse. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 2002.
Trippi, Peter. “Waterhouse: Garden of Enchantment.” 2009.Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.www.mbam.qc.ca/waterhouse/en/exhibition.html.