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‘Bouquet’ – John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917)

‘Bouquet’ – John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917)

A few thoughts on recent research by our Trainee Curator Emily Spargo

John William Waterhouse RA (1849-1917)
Oil on canvas
Falmouth Art Gallery collection
Muriel Foster, from a 1905 publication.
Frisco Magazine (July 1905): Plays and Players p47.

The Artist

John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849 and was the son of the artist William Waterhouse. He began painting in his father’s studio around eighteen before studying at the Royal Academy from c.1870 for several years. He was a prevalent artist and developed a uniquely Italianate and modern style in the late Romantic Pre-Raphaelite manner. His works often draw on classical, historical, and literary subjects. 


We believe this particular piece could be a study for an unknown artwork. Later in Waterhouse’s career, he was accustomed to working on two works of art simultaneously, one large and elaborate and the other often containing only a single figure (like this one), focused primarily on pose and gesture.

While it is not confirmed, the young woman depicted could be Waterhouse’s favoured muse, Muriel Foster. Identified from a single inscription on a 4.75 x 4.5-inch sketch for his Lamia (1905)her name perhaps answers an important mystery in 19th-century painting; as expressed by Christopher Wood in 1981: 

“One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in … Waterhouse’s pictures… It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries and one that will probably never be solved.”

Muriel Foster was born in Sunderland in 1877 and was the great-niece of the celebrated artist Birket Foster (1825 – 1899). She was an acclaimed singer of her time and attended the Royal College of Music on a scholarship. In 1886, The Musical Times said she ‘sang well… though in appearance she was too youthful and attractive!’. In 1900, she was awarded a medal for being the best student by the Musician’s Company. 

It was frowned upon for a woman to be an artist’s muse in Victorian times. Contemporary literature employed Muses as emblems of fallenness, women’s work and dark beauty. The art world presented a double standard in which there was a direct need and use for models while ostracising them through an appeal to conventional morality. Unfortunately, it is not sure if Foster was Waterhouse’s muse. However, her anonymity could be necessary to protect her prestige as a musician from Victorian scruples.

Waterhouse is well-known for his romantic depictions of women. While it seems one woman stood out, he worked with multiple muses, including different female friends, his mother, sister, and wife, Esther Kenworthy. Distinguishing between the faces in his work can be a challenge because he often fused features from one face with another. The prevailing impression is the artist’s continuous quest to depict his ideal vision of womanhood.

It is evident that Waterhouse played close attention to the model’s face in Bouquet. Certain elements, such as the highly-rendered profile and dapples of light on her collarbone, are testament to his unwavering commitment to beauty. The bouquet, similar in colour to the model’s cheeks, becomes a device to accentuate her delicate features further. Flowers often feature repeatedly in his work, and sometimes, the model is in the act of smelling them (for example, The Soul of the Rose, 1908), arguably acting as a conduit to spiritual and sensual pleasures. Art historians have allied this interpretation with several late Victorian pioneering studies into the effects of scents on the mind and body.

This is a genuinely captivating painting that begs so many unanswered questions and we hope to uncover more information in the future.

Collection Highlights Corner

This space is dedicated to highlighting individual works from Falmouth Art Gallery’s collection which contains over 2,000 works ranging from Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist paintings to contemporary prints, photography, automata, and a children’s illustration archive. These works are separate from our current exhibitions and without the space, would otherwise be in the storerooms.