The Soul of the Rose, sometimes known as My Sweet Rose, was completed by John William Waterhouse in 1908 and took inspiration from the literature of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Waterhouse would take ancient tales of romance as the basis for many of his paintings but this artwork was inspired by something much more recent. Tennyson writings can be found in several other pieces from this artist, but The Soul of the Rose is certainly one of his most famous. The way in which the female smells the flower is particularly sensual and something the viewer can easily access in their own mind. This underlines most of Waterhouse's paintings, where femininity and elegance hold firm alongside touches of nature. This beautiful composition features detail across the model's clothing as well small amounts of architecture which support the main focus point.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement was devoted to the beautiful female form, not just Waterhouse himself. Several models would even feature in different artist's work and there became a certain look which was best suited to this art movement, typically tall, slim and brunette with particularly pale skin and rosy cheeks. There was an element of purity to these women who would also be dressed in classic but elegant clothing to complete each composition. The popular aspect of the Pre-Raphaelites is perhaps their connection between the beauty of nature and the female body. There is also an element of mythical narrative in many of the works though Waterhouse would sometimes diverge from that and take more recent influences. The larger, detailed image below allows you to really appreciate the delicate touches that the artist put into this canvas, as well as clarifying the specfic palette used by Waterhouse.
The Soul of the Rose is a phrase that derives from Tennyson's poem titled Maud from 1855. Waterhouse was a classical artist who took much from ancient cultures but was also very much in touch with modern literature and art. He also incorporated elements of French art of the same period into his artistic style. Tennyson's writings included 'And the soul of the rose went into my blood'. Clearly this was therefore the influence, particularly considering the fact that this poet is known to have influence several other Waterhouse paintings. That said, this painting is certainly not an artistic interpretation of the poem, it merely uses it as a starting point from which the artist works along this as a generic theme. We have included a larger image of the finished painting below in order to allow you to fully appreciate the detail and brushwork incorporated by this artist within this painting.
The somewhat romantic belief of art critics is that the female's adoration of the smell of the rose in her hand is due to it sparking a memory of a lover, perhaps someone lost or away from her company. This fits with the depicted role of women up to only recently as sensitive creatures who lived in the debt and admiration of their male counterparts. That said, Waterhouse certainly afforded them a greater independance and power within his paintings than many other artists had done during the 19th century. It can also be remembered that the number of famous female artists around this time could be counted on a single hand, such were the rigid expectations of gender role within society. In that sense, there appears to be more than one delicate flower in this composition, both the roses and the lady herself.
The Soul of the Rose is significant in the way in which the artist draws together the senses of sight and smell - our understanding and appreciation of this painting goes beyond just what we see with our eyes because it also helps us to imagine the odour of these beautiful roses, from the perspective of this beautiful red-headed model. We can touch the rose and indeed enjoy its smell as if we are in this Italian-styled garden ourselves. The architecture connects with the artist's birthplace of Italy which is sometimes forgotten because of his British parents and general concentration on influences from fellow British artists. The tiling in the foreground across the garden wall plus the small neighbouring house help remind us of his upbringing in Rome. The softness of his portraits is also said to have been influenced by his South-European roots.