Executed the year before Hartley's death, Wild Roses seems to be an unlikely subject for the artist. However, the painting probably referred to memorial services held annually in Nova Scotia, for fishermen lost at sea. During these services, funerary wreaths of roses were thrown into the ocean. In 1936, Hartley attended such a ceremony, which commemorated the deaths of Alty and Donny Mason, brothers whom Hartley befriended during his stay in Nova Scotia (1935 and 1936). Hartley continued to explore this theme in subsequent years, painting still lifes of wreaths as well as bouquets of wild roses in memory of his friends.
Portraying the flowers in a bouquet removed the specific association with the memorial service and thus placed them in a more general context. However, the images were deeply personal and poignant to Hartley as symbols of death.
In Wild Roses the bouquet dominates its plain, brick red background. The white paper surrounding the flowers serves as a foil for the blossoms. The dramatic color contrasts, vibrant hues, and stark simplicity of the painting contribute to its compelling effect.