George Frederic Watts Artworks
English Painter and Sculptor
Compton, Surrey, England
Progression of Art
Lying on her back, arms outstretched, the forlorn figure of a woman fills the bottom third of this imposing two-meter canvas. Her still face is highlighted whilst the distant industrial background is lost in a haze; a solitary shining star shines down on her lifeless body as a sign of celestial respect and acknowledgement of the women's individuality. The sad scene is framed by the Waterloo Bridge; underneath the woman, dressed in red (perhaps to signify impropriety or sexual experience as the cause of her downfall), has been washed up by the mysterious deep flowing waters of the River Thames.
The piece is physically as big as its intended emotional message, which was that Victorian society was unjust and women were drowning in its hypocrisy. The painting marked one of Watts' first forays into social realism and highlights the artist's confrontation of the sexual double standards that faced women who fell pregnant out of wedlock at this time. The inspiration for the piece came from Thomas Hood's poem The Bridge of Sighs, in which an unnamed expectant woman throws herself to her death after being made homeless. Watts said himself that he wanted his work to be considered "poems painted on canvas". Sadly, it was often the case that Victorian "fallen women" - be they expecting babies but unmarried, shunned by lovers, or made destitute and hungry fro other reasons - would commit suicide by drowning themselves in the icy and unforgiving waters of the Thames.
Watts uses color to highlight the stark contrast between the woman's soul - who we are asked to consider with compassion - and the dark, uncaring city beyond. The figure's skin is almost luminescent against the black and blues of the dark and indifferent London cityscape. The palette of the city beyond recalls the wispy and feathered aesthetic techniques of his fellow artist, James Abbott Whistler, who was soon to make London his home. As Watts knew that Victorian society was not yet ready for the mirror that he held up to it - indeed, his exposure of the harsh and unrealistic expectation placed on women's shoulders - he cleverly refrained from exhibiting the painting for another 30 years to come.
Oil on canvas
Watts was a prolific and successful portrait painter and his distinctive studies of women produced in a highly poetic and romantic spirit were very popular among Victorian society. The exquisite Choosing is one of his finest examples, depicting a classically beautiful, golden haired young woman tilting her head in a gesture of gentle eroticism in order to enjoy the imagined luscious scent of a bright red camellia. Her eyes are closed, repeating a favored and important motif for Watt's; he suggests that knowing comes intuitively from within, rather than as learnt response derived from the external world.
The model in this painting is in fact the artist's own teenage-bride Ellen Terry who he had married at the age of 46 (when she was 16). This sensuous image shares much in common with the Pre-Raphaelite style. Indeed, Watts too is extremely interested in allegory, and in the messages that he is able to convey using repeated motifs and poignant symbols. Camellias, though showy and beautiful, are scentless. Yet she is delicately holding close to her heart a clutch of violets. According to the art teacher and curator Wilfred Blunt, who wrote a biography of Watts, Choosing shows Terry "trying to decide between the rival merits of a showy, scentless camellia and the humble but fragrant violets held close to her heart". Do the flowers in this respect signify two different men vying for the young girl's affection? Or do the flowers stand as a choice at this point between the two states of innocence and experience? Or between the life as a man's lover, or the life of an independent actress?
At this point of the painting's creation, Terry had given up a career in acting in order to live with Watts and to be educated by him. The union was less shocking than it would be today, but it was disastrous nevertheless. Terry, the subject for a number of Watt's symbolist portraits left her husband in under a year and returned to the stage, later becoming the preeminent Shakespearean actress of her age. The portrait remains a skilled testament to love and beauty, an illustration that Watt's shared appreciation for flora, lavish color schemes, and youthful female beauty like the Pre-Raphaelites. Watts though, also made pictures without such obvious affiliations and as such with further extended possibilities of meaning and influence.
Oil on canvas
Love and Life
Here Watts depicts the sturdy winged male figure of Love reaching down tenderly to help the female personification of Life as she fumbles her way up the rocky mountain path of existence. Pale, weak, and beautiful, she turns her head upwards to the guidance of Love. The message is similar to that of Found Drowned, whereby an expectant lone woman is left destitute. No doubt at some point before this said woman lost her life, Love reached out a hand to her also. Unfortunately, the impact of consummated love in the Victorian period (especially out of marriage) often heralded disastrous consequences.
Watts said himself that this was one of his of his best paintings "to portray my message to the age". As the pair ascends, violets blossom on jagged stones and clouds disperse to reveal a clear blue sky. Love is here understood as altruism and compassion, rather than physical passion, or indeed, if it is not to ruin a woman that it importantly is better kept this way. This was an important moral message for the Victorian age - when blind adherence to the teachings of the bible began to give way to scientific reason and more individualist ways of thinking. It was, in the artist's words, "a painted parable".
Watts believed that art should "lift the veil that shrouds the enigma of being" and he wanted this piece to represent in a universal symbolic language the emotions and aspirations of life. He donated the piece to the U.S. where he was growing in popularity, in the hope that it would spread the painting's double (and at times paradoxical message) - that Life cannot reach its transcendent best without the help of charitable Love, but also that women are suffering in contemporary society.
A critic at the time, G.K. Chesterton said: "More than any other modern man, and much more than politicians who thundered on platforms or financiers who captured continents, Watts has sought in the midst of his quiet and hidden life to mirror his age...In the whole range of Watts' symbolic art, there is scarcely a single example of the ordinary and arbitrary current symbol...There is nothing there but the eternal things, day and night and fire and the sea, and motherhood and the dead." In many ways this man was a poet and a visionary, interested only in powerful recurring symbols and never distracted by fashion or temporary societal ills.
Oil on canvas
Watts increasingly believed that society was being made rotten by the worship of wealth and riches, and his portrait of Mammon is a harsh one. The work sought to provide an important moral message; the artist was rallying against the destructive motivating force of greed that was prevalent in society. He had become disturbed by the increasing poverty and destitution and began to question industrialization's dehumanizing effects. Along with social commentators including William Morris, John Ruskin, and Robert Carlyle, he began to question the benefits and purpose of modern industry and commerce. In 1880 he wrote, "Material prosperity has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this visible deity does not make us happy".
As such Mammon is suitably a hideous visual spectacle and an uncomfortable work to behold. The canvas is dominated by a palette of violent red and the viewer is confronted by an ugly satanic being - rouge, repulsive, and bulbous - resting his feet upon two slumped bodies while he sits on a throne decorated with skulls. The mere mortals appear to have crumpled under the rule of this monstrous tyrant; he recalls murderous literary characters including Ovid's King Midas, and villains in Edmund Spencer's epic poem, The Faerie Queen (1590). Crowned and sneering, the kingly beast looks to the viewer resided to fate of hedonism, greed, and corruption. A closer look at the piece reveals great texture in technique, as though Watt's brushstrokes are scars that resist and writhe, and pull away from the flat canvas. It was because of this highly gestural mark making that when the art critic Roger Fry was asked to account for the way that Cubism seemed to have burst out of nowhere in 1907, he explained, no - quite the opposite in fact - "it was quite easy to make the transition from Watts to Picasso; there was no break, only a continuation".
Oil on canvas
Hope is arguably the most lyrical, poetic, and memorable of Watts' paintings. It is a profound and remarkable image that insightfully looks backwards to early Renaissance frescos (in both palette and symbolism) and forwards to modernism and Surrealism (in that the subject is blindfolded and thus looks within to the imagination for guidance). This striking picture depicts, at its centre, the blindfolded figure of Hope seated on a sinking globe, playing a broken lyre. She 'hopefully' bends her head to listen to the music, revealing that her faith remains despite the sadness and desolation of her situation. Watts wrote of this painting at the time: "The lyre has all the strings broken but one out of which poor little tinkle she is trying to get all the music possible, listening with all her might to the little sound." Watts made two versions of this same painting, and the first version (now in a private collection), displayed the same motif of the single star that we have already seen in Found Drowned. This sign of optimism however, was removed from the second version of the image, bequeathed to the nation, completed sadly with a little less "hope".
The sensitive and melancholy rendering of grey, green, and blue hues of this piece, similar to that of Watts' 1879 Portrait of Violet Lindsay hint at Picasso's blue period, which the infamous Spaniard began just five years later. The principle concerns of the work are not however color, light, and tonality. Watts' main focus, as is typical, was the Symbolism and great depth of meaning that lay beyond the form, line, and shape of his subject matter. Indeed, the enduring power and influence of this painting can in no way be underestimated. In 1959 Martin Luther King, inspired by the painting, wrote a sermon on the subject of hope, as did Jeremiah Wright a generation later. Barack Obama was watching Wright's speech in 1990, and he himself went on to write The Audacity of Hope, the title of both his rousing address to the Democratic Convention in 2004 and his manifesto, published two years later. The notion of Hope, for better or for worse, defines us as human beings. Whilst there is general consensus that these speeches mentioned, including Shattered Dreams by Martin Luther King, were directly inspired by Watts, the relationship between Watts and Picasso is more ambiguous. There is no literal proof that Picasso knew and followed the work of Watts. However, as two deeply questioning spirits, they both uncover and make visible sorrow and hidden demons.
Oil on canvas
The Sower of the Systems
The Sower of the Systems enigmatically captures a moving figure from behind, as he moves through his dance or runs on a journey, while light and sparks arc from his majestic outstretched arms. He is priest, shaman, even God-like, shrouded in blue robes and barefoot, accompanied by encircling rings of magic. The piece is alive with movement and color and is utterly unlike any other work completed in this period. Interestingly, Watts had in fact seen the rings of Saturn through his telescope, cleverly asserting that the cosmic elements of this piece not only echo the artist's love of stargazing, but also bring his dreamlike vision closer to everyday reality. Not only a pre-curser to Abstraction, and the Watts' usual nod to the poetic atmospheres of Romanticism and Symbolism, the painting is also comparable to the much later experiments of the Italian Futurists. Wartime Europe saw deepening exploration into the powers and meaning of movement, speed, and in turn, progress. The Vorticists adopted the theme in England, but Watts had considered the idea 40 years before.
It is crucial, to properly understand the work's importance, that we know it was produced years before any form of abstract painting came into popular being. The work for its time was ambitious, original, and striking in its composition, and what's more, it actually impressed critics with its daring modernity. Still though, Watts himself was not convinced by the overall success of the work. He said: "My attempts at giving utterance and form to my ideas are like the child's design, who being asked... to draw God, made a great number of circular scribbles, and struck his pencil through the centre, making a great void. This is utterly absurd as a picture, but there is a greater idea in it than in Michelangelo's old man with a white beard."
The painting was completed two years before Watts died and in many ways reads as his attempt to unite and reconcile many things, perhaps including apparent contradictions at work between science, art, and religion. On his deathbed in 1904, Watts said he witnessed the universe coming into being, "the breath of the Creator acting on nebulous matter causing agitating waves and revolving lines to fly out in all directions". It was as though he had already seen this, and as such, the artist truly was a visionary, both in life and in death.
Oil on canvas