The painting's title "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May" comes from a line in the poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" which was written in the seventeenth century by Robert Herrick. The poem emphasizes the passing of time. Interestingly it was the second of two paintings with the same title.
The image creates a wonderful ethereal atmosphere. Young maidens are picking flowers in a meadow near a stream. Waterhouse has depicted a blue sky and some writers have suggested that the scene was influenced by his country of birth, Italy.
The viewer's attention is directed to the two main characters in the foreground. Barefooted and dressed in flowing gowns, they each stoop to pick the flowers with one hand whilst clutching a posy in their other.
One is dressed in blue and has red hair, the other wears pink and has raven black hair. Trippi, writing for Sotheby's catalogue, suggests that this painting and others which followed it, may also have been inspired by the mythological tale of Persephone. Innocent Persephone, daughter of the Harvest Goddess named Demeter, was abducted by Hades whilst picking flowers on the plain of Enna.
The painting was bought by Sir Brodie Henderson in 1909. He was the brother of railway magnate and British financier, Alexander Henderson, a known collector of Waterhouse's work. Apart from appearing in a magazine photograph in 1911, the painting did not surface again until around 2002. A couple in Canada had bought a farmhouse in 1973 and requested that the beautiful painting that they had seen hanging on a wall should remain there for the sale.
It was not until they had the work appraised many years later that the couple discovered the painting was "Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May" by John William Waterhouse. Luckily the art dealer recognized the work instantly. Although the painting did not sell when it went to auction, it was estimated to reach $2.5 million.
As yet, no one knows how the painting came to be in a Canadian farmhouse, although the framer's label indicates it was in Canada in 1959. It is not clear why it has an unusual arched, gold top either. No doubt the mystery will be unravelled in time.
Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May is a stunningly beautiful painting. It is not surprising that the lucky couple who spotted it on the wall wanted to keep it.