Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
George Frederic Watts Photo

George Frederic Watts

English Painter and Sculptor

Born: February 23, 1817 - London, England
Died: July 1, 1904 - Compton, Surrey, England
Movements and Styles:
Symbolism
"I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man."
1 of 9
George Frederic Watts Signature
"Watts said Art should provide of way to "lift the veil that shrouds the enigma of being"."
2 of 9
George Frederic Watts Signature
"Watts was hailed as the greatest painter since the old masters. This sense of Watts's artistic vision being built into the fabric of cultural life - literally, in the case of his many frescoes and murals - was in marked contrast to his personal insularity. He never sat on a committee, turned down a baronetcy twice and once pointedly failed to turn up to meet Queen Victoria when she visited Lincoln's Inn to see a vast fresco he had made of historical lawgivers."
3 of 9
Kathryn Hughes
"The studio of Mr Watts is not merely a gallery of pictures but a museum of ideas."
4 of 9
Art critic Joseph Beavington Atkinson
"a national treasure whose work was instantly recognizable yet whose refusal to appear in public only added to his personal myth"."
5 of 9
Nicholas Tromans, curator at the Watts Gallery, suggests that we think of Watts as a kind of Victorian Lucian Freud
"My own views are too visionary and the qualities I aim at are too abstract to be attained, or perhaps to produce any effect if attained.'"
6 of 9
Watts told art critic John Ruskin why he did not want to exhibit some of his works
"When Lord Frederic Leighton and his friend George Frederic Watts came into the Academy as young artists, they wanted to change the world and they made an exhibition the way they wanted to make it. In their day they were innovative. Now we look back and they look tremendously grand and stuffy, but they were young artists."
7 of 9
Christopher Le Brun, president of the Royal Academy
"Serious-minded about more than his art, Watts did not encourage "anything savoring of the free and easy", according to William Michael Rossetti."
8 of 9
George Frederic Watts Signature
"I think the whole of his work technically triumphant. Clearly it is not. For I believe that scarcely he has know what he is doing: I believe that he was in the dark when lines came wrong; that he has been still deeper in the dark when lines came right...His right hand has taught him terrible things."
9 of 9
CK Chesterton, biographer and art critic

Summary of George Frederic Watts

George Frederic Watts was a visionary force with a paintbrush and a powerful persona as a man. Following an extended and inspirational trip to Italy, he took to wearing Renaissance robes on a daily basis. Indeed always unusual, he revealed an early interest in the unconscious mind by preferring to depict his subjects with their eyes closed. In style, he moved organically from Symbolism to abstraction whilst other artists remained far from this point. Overall, Watts was drawn to a cosmic synthesis of all things and as such deals in recurring notions and allegorical renderings of human strength and folly, never to be distracted by the fashions and expectations of the Victorian Age.

Indeed, his art straddles two worlds, that of Victorian romantic and nationalist symbolism, and that of a modernist insistence on digging to the depths and following the individual psyche. To privilege ideas and internal feelings during this era was rare, as was foreseeing the dehumanizing effects of commercialism. Indeed, a character in one of the artist's paintings, Mammon, is born as the monster to herald the absolute emotional disaster of the beginnings of a highly industrialized and capitalist society. Not only a painter, it is one of Watts' sculptures that well embodies his own character and ambition - a man on horseback looking out to the horizon with his hand to his forehead - he was an idealistic dreamer with an unwavering belief in humanity's inclination towards betterment.

Accomplishments

  • Although Watts was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites - he was well acquainted with members of the brotherhood and shared many of the same ideas - he is in fact more typical of a British artist in that he remained relatively isolated and unaffiliated with a particular movement. Like the Pre-Raphaelites though, and his friend Julia Margaret Cameron, Watts was inspired by literary references and practiced a holistic form of art making whereby poetry, philosophy, music, and general suggestions on how to live as a good person were all combined.
  • In many ways, Watts was a man before his time. It was a radical statement of the day to say, "I paint ideas, not things", for such is the premise of Modern Art and following that, Conceptual Art. His paintings look forward to the intricate canvases of the French Symbolist Odilon Redon, and similar to Redon, Watts' early explorations of the unconscious, dream, the irrational, and the imagination, led him to expose monsters. Both artists successfully uncover horror and darkness in man, as well as creativity and strength, and as such, their malevolent human hybrid creatures (in particular depictions of the Minotaur) recall those of William Blake, Francisco Goya, and Pablo Picasso.
  • Following extended travels in Italy, Watts was heavily inspired by the art of early and high Renaissance. He was influenced, not only by the soft color palette (particularly the hazy blues and icy pinks), but also by his desire to present an audience with a whole and epic story. Inspired most significantly by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel (1508-1512) and by Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel (1305) he consequently aspired to create his own 'House of Life' (a united series of many of his canvases dealing with specific emotions). Like the Old Masters, he considered his body of work to be at once a didactic narrative and a synthesis of spiritual ideas.
  • A genuine and humble artist, Watts was also a political man. He bequeathed much of his art to the British nation in the belief that art should be accessible because it helped human development and was a tool for social reform (an idea shared by William Morris). He celebrated the heroic acts of ordinary men at Postman's Park, and built a community Ceramic Studio, and an Art Gallery within an Artists' Village in collaboration with his wife in the village of Compton in Surrey. Indeed, Watts' wife, Mary Seton Fraser-Tytler, was a suffragette, and Watts' sustained love and support for her, as well as his consistent return to the theme of the brutal mistreatment, limited choices, and unacceptable second-rate position of women in society, earn him the label as an early Feminist.

Biography of George Frederic Watts

George Frederic Watts Photo

George Frederic Watts was born in Middlesex, a historic county in the south east of England that has since been swallowed up by London. His father was a piano maker and because of his love for music, named his son after the composer, George Frederic Handel, who shared the same birthday. The young Watts was a sickly child and as such was unable to attend school regularly. He was instead home-schooled by his father, both in a conservative Christian fashion but also with the introduction of interesting literature including Homer's The Iliad. Watts loved and held dear the inspiration that such ancient Greek texts brought him throughout his career, but resented and rejected the strict sabbatarian and evangelical household in which these were presented. Watts was deeply affected by the severe routine that he experienced on Sundays, and general restriction had a negative impact on his overall view of organized religion. As such, he questioned traditional biblical teachings and his own reimagining notions of 'the creator' can be seen in works through to the end of his life.



Progression of Art

Found Drowned (1848-50)
1848-50

Found Drowned

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

Choosing (1864)
1864

Choosing

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 (c.1884-85)
c.1884-85

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

Mammon (1884-5)
1884-5

Mammon

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 (1886)
1886

Hope

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 (1902)
1902

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


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
George Frederic Watts
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on George Frederic Watts

websites
articles
video clips

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie

"George Frederic Watts Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Rebecca Baillie
Available from:
First published on 23 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]