pre raphaelite woman smelling rose
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.
Find something beautiful. Hang on to it.
‘Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May’, John William Waterhouse ‘Soul of the Rose’ also often referred to as ‘My Sweet Rose’, John William Waterhouse
The Soul of the Rose
John William Waterhouse was a Romantic artist in the truest sense. His passion for a natural setting and his love of strong and beautiful female figures made his work truly unique and extremely popular with his patrons. His paintings of classical and mythical scenes show a true mix between Neoclassical themes and Romantic style which would develop through other artists in the rest of the 19th century.
Waterhouse could not finish the series of Ophelia paintings because he was gravely ill with cancer by 1915. He died two years later, and his grave can be found at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. 
John William Waterhouse RA (6 April 1849 – 10 February 1917) was an English painter known for working first in the Academic style and for then embracing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s style and subject matter. His artworks were known for their depictions of women from both ancient Greek mythology and Arthurian legend.
60. Another Waterhouse painting that features a girl smelling a rose is The Enchanted Garden of 1916.
62. On scent and soul see Constance Classen, “The Breath of God: Sacred Histories of Scent,” in Classen, The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 36–60.