Today it is exactly two hundred years since the birth of George Frederic Watts (1817–1904). This article concludes my short account of his life and selection of his paintings to celebrate his bicentenary.
By 1864, when Watts was 46 years old, he was at the hub of London’s arts circles, and prospering. He went to the Haymarket Theatre in London, to see the young actress Ellen Terry, who was only sixteen at the time, but was already an experienced performer in Shakespearean and other plays. Watts painted portraits of Ellen and her older sister Kate. Soon, Watts proposed to Ellen, and they married just a week before her seventeenth birthday.
Watts painted several portraits of his wife, of which the most famous is Choosing, A Portrait of Ellen Terry (1864). She is shown making the choice between large, showy but unscented camellia flowers, and humbler but fragrant violets, symbolising the choice between the material and spiritual. Their marriage was as ephemeral as those flowers: after only ten months, Ellen left him. She returned to the stage in 1866, and eventually re-married after their divorce was finalised in 1877. She retired from the stage in 1920, and was made a Dame in 1925. She died in 1928.
Fata Morgana (1865) is another version of his earlier painting of the enchantress Morgan le Fay. This lacks the sweeping arc of the first work, making the composition less formal, and I think rather weaker. The knight grasping out for her is also much older, perhaps reflecting Watts’ recent domestic events.
In the early 1870s, Watts had a new home built for himself near Frederic, Lord Leighton’s house and the Prinseps’ in London. He also obtained a house in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight, close to Julia Margaret Cameron’s house, and the small estate of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
I do not know whether Watts’ painting of Endymion (1872) refers to the original Greek myth or to John Keats’ poetic reinterpretation of that myth. However it shows the shepherd Endymion making love with the Titan goddess of the Moon, Selene or ‘Cynthia’ (Keats). This is one of Watts’ most painterly works, and appears to have come straight from his emotions. This also marks his transition from painting Pre-Raphaelite staples such as mediaeval knights and legends, to his later works which were more allegorical and even frankly symbolist.
From 1877, Watts exhibited most of his paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, which was opened then by a friend.
Chaos (c 1875–82) is one of his early symbolist paintings, which was part of an intended series of murals representing what he referred to as ‘the progress of the cosmos’. Chaos itself is here represented by the giants at the left, who are struggling to free themselves from the elements of fire and vapour; on the right other figures struggle for release from the earth. The chain of much smaller figures at the lower right represents the establishment of ordered time and space.
Watts saw his Love and Life (c 1884–5) as his clearest portrayal of his message to the Victorian age, that life (the nude female) can only reach summits when it is protected and guided by love (the angelic male). The similarities with images in Louis Janmot’s epic series Le Poème de l’âme (1854) is striking, although there is no evidence that Watts ever saw Janmot’s work.
The Minotaur (1885) was Watts’ criticism of the worst side of Victorian society and moral values. Using the figure of the monstrous cross between and man and bull which devoured victims in its labyrinth on Crete, the artist indicates human bestiality and lust. The Minotaur has crushed a small bird in its left hand, and gazes out to sea, awaiting the next shipment of young men and virgin women from Greece.
Shortly before Watts painted this, a journalist had published a series of articles exposing the industry of child prostitution, referring frequently to the myth of the Minotaur. Apparently Watts was so moved by this that he painted this work early one morning. It was exhibited in the autumn in Liverpool, but was not sold; Watts then donated it to the Tate Gallery at its foundation in 1897.
Throughout his career, Watts was very influential on other artists, although he had few pupils of his own. It is often stated that he had only two – Val Prinsep and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope – but late in his career he had a third (and possibly more). Marie Spartali Stillman, who had long been a friend of Watts, brought her step-daughter Lisa Stillman to Watts for further training after she had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Hope (1886), which Watts painted with the help of assistants, is probably the best of his symbolic works. One of a series intended for a grand ‘House of Life’, Watts broke with tradition and shows this personification blind, her ear bent to listen intently to the one remaining string of a lyre. She sits on the globe, one tiny star twinkling faintly above, her efforts seemingly in vain, but always in hope.
This painting has been influenced by several works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Albert Moore, and Burne-Jones which were part of the Aesthetic Movement. This second version was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. It proved popular with both the critics and the public.
As Watts grew older, his paintings became more concerned with the inevitability of death. From his earlier Love and Life, in about 1885-87 he moved to Love and Death. He rejected the notion that death was the terrible gift of the grim reaper, and here shows its personification as inevitable, crushing Cupid’s roses, but not disturbing the nearby dove. This less morbid treatment generated a lot of discussion, and Watts ended up painting several versions of this image.
Watts married again in 1886, and in 1891 the couple had a house built for them near Guildford, Surrey. Nearby they built the Watts Gallery to exhibit his work; it opened two months before the artist’s death, and continues to house the largest collection of his work.
‘She shall be called woman’ (c 1875–92) is from a remarkable series of paintings which he completed very late in his career, looking at Eve and the image of woman. These works are decorated richly with flowers and other potential symbols, and Watts’ style has changed considerably from his usual precise detail, with their forms becoming more diffuse and evanescent.
Time, Death and Judgement (1900) evolved over a series of versions first started around 1870. Surprisingly, Watts retained the same composition in all of them, and they differ only in small details.
The figure of Time is at the left, holding the traditional scythe; unusually, Watts depicts Time as a young and muscular man, rather than the more conventional ‘Father Time’ with white hair and beard. At the right, Death is a young woman, the lap of her dress containing fading flowers. Time and Death are linked by holding hands. Behind, and towering over them, is the figure of Judgement, holding the scales of justice in her left hand, and brandishing a fiery sword.
Watts died, at the age of 87, in his home at Compton, near Guildford, Surrey, in 1904. With more than 20 of his paintings in the Tate and over 50 of his portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, he was never forgotten. Unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, who have undergone a major rise in popularity during the late twentieth century, his work has not seen any significant revival. Perhaps the occasion of his bicentenary gives us a chance to re-appraise his art and its influence.