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GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS (1817-1904)

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Originally appearing in Volume V28, Page 422 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS (1817-1904), English painter and sculptor, was born in London on the 23rd of February 1817. While hardly more than a boy he was permitted to enter the schools of the Royal Academy; but his attendance was short-lived, and his further art education was confined to personal experiment and endeavour, guided and corrected by a constant appeal to the standard of ancient Greek sculpture. There are portraits of himself, painted in 1834; of Mr James Weale, about 1835; of his father, " Little Miss Hopkins," and Mr Richard Jarvis, painted in 1836; and in 1837 he was already far enough advanced to be an exhibitor at the Academy with a picture of " The Wounded Heron " and two portraits. His first exhibited figure-subject, " Cavaliers," appeared on the Academy walls in 1839, and was followed in 1840 by " Isabella e Lorenzo," in 1841 by " How should I your true love know? " and in 1842 by a scene from Cymbeline and a portrait of Mrs Ionides. The Royal Commission appointed for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament offered prizes in 1842 to those artists whose cartoons for frescoes should be adjudged best adapted to its object, and at the exhibition in Westminster Hall next year Watts secured a prize of £300 for a design of " Caractacus ledin triumph through the streets of Rome." This enabled him to visit Italy in 1844, and he remained there during the greater portion of the three following years, for the most part in Florence, where he enjoyed the patronage and personal friendship of Lord Holland, the British ambassador. For him he painted a portrait of Lady Holland, exhibited in 1848, and in his Villa Careggi, near the city, a fresco, after making some experimental studies in that medium, fragments of which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. To Lord Holland's encouragement, also, it was chiefly due that in 1846 the artist took part in another competition, the third organized by the Royal Commissioners, who on this occasion announced a further list of prizes for works in oil. Watts sent in a cartoon depicting " Alfred inciting his subjects to prevent the landing of the Danes, or the first naval victory of the English," which, after obtaining a first-class prize of £500 at the exhibition in Westminster Hall, was purchased by the government, and hangs in one of the committee rooms of the House of Commons. It led, moreover, to a commission for the fresco of " St George overcomes the Dragon," which, begun. in 1848 and finished in 1853, forms part of the decorations of the Hall of the Poets in the Houses of Parliament. He next proposed to adorn gratuitously the interior of the Great Hall of Euston railway station with a series of frescoes illustrating " The Progress of the Cosmos," but the offer was refused. A similar proposition made shortly afterwards to the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn was received in a less commercial spirit, and was followed by the execution of the fresco, " Justice: a Hemicycle of Lawgivers," on the north side of their hall. While this large undertaking was still in progress, Watts was working steadily at pictures and portraits. In 1849 the first two of the great allegorical compositions which form the most characteristic of the artist's productions were exhibited—" Life's Illusions," an elaborate presentment of the vanity of human desires, and " The people that sat in darkness," turning eagerly towards the growing dawn. In 1850 he first gave public expression to his intense longing to improve the condition of humanity in the picture of " The Good Samaritan " bending over the wounded traveller; this, as recorded in the catalogue of the Royal Academy, was " painted as an expression of the artist's admiration and respect for the noble philanthropy of Thomas Wright, of Manchester," and to that city he presented the work. In 1856 Watts paid a visit to Lord Holland at Paris, where he was then ambassador, and through him made the acquaintance and painted the portraits of Thiers, Prince Jerome Bonaparte and other famous Frenchmen; while other celebrities who sat to him during these years were Guizot (1848), Colonel Rawlinson, C.B., Sir Henry Taylor and Thomas Wright (1851), Lord John Russell (1852), Tennyson (1856, and again in 1859)., John Lothrop Motley the historian (1859), the duke of Argyll (186o), Lord Lawrence and Lord Lyndhurst (1862), Lord Wensleydale (1864), Mr Gladstone (1858 and 1865), Sir William Bowman and Swinburne (1865), Panizzi (1866) and Dean Stanley and Dr Joachim in 1867. Notable pictures of the same period are " Sir Galahad " (1862), " Ariadne in Naxos " (1863), " Time and Oblivion " (1864), originally designed for sculpture to be carried out " in divers materials after the manner of Pheidias," and " Thetis " (1866). In spite of these and many other evidences of his importance, it was not until 1867 that Watts was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, but the council then conferred upon him the rare distinction of promoting him, in the course of the same year, to full Academicianship. Thenceforward he continued to exhibit each year, with a few exceptions, at the Academy, even after his retirement in 1896, and he was also a frequent contributor to the Grosvenor Gallery, and subsequently to the New Gallery, at which last a special exhibition of his works was held in the winter of 1896-1897. Though he travelled abroad to some extent, going to Asia Minor in 1857 with the expedition sent to investigate the ruins of Halicarnassus, and visiting in later years Italy, Greece and Egypt, the greater part of his life was passed in the laborious seclusion of his studio either at Little Holland House, Melbury Road, Kensington, where he settled in 1859, or in the country at Limnerslease, Compton, Surrey. Apart from his art, I would sooner point out the true way to those who seek it than his life was happily uneventful, the sole facts necessary to record being his marriage in 1886 with Miss Mary Fraser-Tytler, an early union with Miss Ellen Terry having been dissolved many years before; his twice receiving (1885 and 1894), but respectfully declining, the offer of a baronetcy; and his inclusion in June 1902 in the newly founded Order of Merit. He died on the 1st of July 1904. The world is exceptionally well provided with opportunities of judging of the qualities of G. F. Watts's art, for with a noble generosity he presented to his country a representative selection of the best work of his long life. A prominent element in it, and ore which must prove of the greatest value to posterity, is the inestimable series of portraits of his distinguished contemporaries, a series no less remarkable for its artistic than for its historical interest. A glance through the list of his subjects shows the breadth of his sympathies and his superiority to creed or party. Among politicians are the duke of Devonshire (1883), Lords Salisbury (1884), Sherbrooke (1882), Campbell (1882), Cowper (1877), Ripon (1896), Dufferin (1897) and Shaftesbury (1882), Mr Gerald Balfour (1899) and Mr John Burns (1897); poets—Tennyson, Swinburne (1884), Browning (1875), Matthew Arnold (1881) Rossetti (1865, and subsequent replica) and William Morris (187o) ; artists--himself (1864, 1880, and eleven others), Lord Leighton (1871 and 1881), Calderon (1872), Prinsep (1872), Burne-Jones (187o), Millais (1871), Walter Crane (1891), and Alfred Gilbert (1896); literature is represented by John Stuart Mill (exhibited 1874), Carlyle (1869), George Meredith (1893), Max Muller (1895) and Mr Lecky (1878); music, by Sir Charles Halle; while among others who have won fame in diverse paths are Lords Napier (1886) and Roberts (1899), General Baden-Powell (1902), Garibaldi, Sir Richard Burton (1882), Cardinal Manning (1882), Dr Martineau (1874), Sir Andrew Clark (1894), George Pea-body, Mr Passmore Edwards, Claude Montefiore (1894). Even more significant from an artistic point of view is the great collection of symbolical pictures in the Tate Gallery which forms the artist's message to mankind. Believing devoutly in the high mission of didactic art, he strove ever to carry out his part of it faithfully. To quote his own words: " My intention has not been so much to paint pictures that charm the eye, as to suggest great thoughts that will appeal to the imagination and the heart, and kindle all that is best and noblest in humanity "; and his tenet is that the main object of the painter should be " demanding noble aspirations, condemning in the most trenchant manner prevalent vices, and warning in deep tones against lapses from morals and duties." There are not wanting critics who radically dissent from this view of the proper functions of art. It must be admitted that there is force in their objection when the inner meaning of a picture is found to be exceedingly obscure, if not incomprehensible, without a verbal explanation. In the female figure, for instance, bending blindfolded on the globe suspended in space and sounding the sole remaining string upon her lyre, while a single star shines in the blue heavens, it is not obvious to every one that the idea of " Hope " (1885) is suggested. There can be few, nevertheless, who will maintain that his aim is not a lofty one; and the strongest evidence of the artist's greatness, to those who accept his doctrine, is the fact that he has not only striven untiringly for his own ideals, but has very often gloriously attained them. Moreover, in so doing he has not failed on occasion to impart to his work much of that very charm which is to him a secondary consideration, or to exhibit an assured and accomplished mastery of the technical achievement which is to some the primary object and essential triumph of painting. It was, in short, the rare combination of supreme handicraft with a great Imaginative intellect which secured to Watts his undisputed place in the public estimation of his day. The grandeur and dignity of his style, the ease and purposefulness of his brushwork, the richness and harmoniousness of his colouring—qualities partly his own, partly derived from his study of Italian masters at an early and impression-able age—are acknowledged even by those to whom his elevated educational intentions are a matter of indifference, if not of absolute disapprobation; while many, to whom his exceptional artistic attainment is a sealed book, have gathered courage or consolation from the grave moral purpose and deep human sympathy of his teaching. He expresses his ideas for the most part in terms of beauty, an idealized, classical beauty of form, a glowing, Venetian beauty of colour, though his conviction of the deadly danger of heaped-up riches, which he vindicated in his life as well as in his work, has, in such cases as " The Minotaur " (exhibited in 1896), " Mammon " (1885) and " Jonah " (1895), where the unveiled vileness of Cruelty and Greed is fearlessly depicted, driven him to the presentment of sheer ugliness or brutality. Far oftener a vast, all-embracing tenderness inspires his work; it is the sorrow, not the sin, that stirs him. When he would rebuke the thoughtless inhumanity which sacrifices its annual hecatombs of innocent birds to fashionable vanity and grasping commerce, it is not upon the blood and cruelty that he dwells, but the pity of it that lie typifies in " Dedication " or " The Shuddering Angel " (1892) weeping over the altar spread with Woman's spoils. Yet it is as a teacher that the artist is seen at his highest: headmonish those who have wandered. He never wearies of emphasizing the reality of the power of Love, the fallacy underlying the fear of Death. To the early masters Death was a bare and ghastly skeleton, above all things to be shunned; to Watts it is a grand, impressive figure, awful indeed but not horrible, irresistible but not ruthless, a bringer of rest and peace, not to be rashly sought but to be welcomed when the inevitable hour shall strike. "Sic transit" (1892) conveys most completely, perhaps,Watts's lesson on the theme of death. Stretched on a bier and reverently sheeted lies a corpse; strewn neglected on the ground lie the ermine robe of worldly rank, the weapons of the warrior, the lute of the musician, the book of human learning, the palmer's robe of late repentance and the roses of fleeting pleasures; the laurel crown remains as the one thing worth the winning, and the inscription " What I spent I had; what I saved I lost; what I gave I have," points the moral. Such is the significance of the still more masterly ` Court of Death" (finally completed 1902 and now in the Tate Gallery). To the same early masters Love was usually a mere distributor of sensual pleasures, a tricksy spirit instinct with malice and bringing more harm than happiness to humanity, though neither was of much moment. Watts has not altogether ignored this view, and in " Mischief " (1878) has portrayed Man, love-led, entangled among the thorns of the world; but, in the main, Love to him is the chief guide and helper of mankind along the barren, rock-strewn path of life, through whom alone he can attain the higher levels, and who triumphs in the end over Death itself. To these views on the all-importance of love a trilogy of pictures in the Tate Gallery gives full expression. In the first, " Love and Life," exhibited in 1885, a replica of an earlier picture in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and of another version presented by him to the Luxembourg, Paris, Love, a figure in the prime of manhood, leads and supports the slender, clinging girl who symbolizes Life up to the craggy mountain-top, while he partly shields her from the blast under a broad wing. Of this he himself said, " Probably ' Love and Life ' best portrays my message to the age. Life, re-presented by the female figure, never could have reached such heights unless protected and guided by Love ";1 and in the prefatory note to the exhibition of his works in 1896 he wrote, " The slight female figure is an emblem of the fragile quality in humanity, at once its weakness and its strength; sensibility, aided by Love, sympathy, tenderness, self-sacrifice, and all that the range of the term implies, humanity ascends the rugged path from brutality to spirituality." The limitations of earthly love are shown in the second " Love and Death," one version of which was exhibited in 1877 and others in 1896, &c. In this, Love, a beautiful boy, striving vainly to bar the door to the mighty figure of Death, is thrust back with crushed wings powerless to stay the advance; but that the defeat is merely apparent and temporary is suggested rather than asserted by the third Love Triumphant '' (1898), where Time, with broken scythe, and Death lie prostrate, while the same youth, with widespread wings and face and arms upraised to heaven, stands between them on tiptoe as if preparing to soar aloft. Though the purely symbolical is the most distinctive side of Watts's art, it is by no means the only one. He has drawn inspiration largely from both the Old and New Testaments, more rarely from the poets and classical myths; still more rarely he has treated subjects of modern life, though even in these he has not abandoned his moral purpose, but has sought out such incidents, whether fictitious or historical, as will serve him in conveying some lesson or monition. The three pictures of the story of Eve in the Tate Gallery, " She shall be called woman " (1892), " Eve Tempted " and " Eve Repentant " (both exhibited in 1896), and " The Curse of Cain " (1872) in the Diploma Gallery, may be cited as examples of the first; " For he had great possessions " (1894) of the second; " Sir Galahad " (1862), " Orpheus and Eurydice " and " Psyche " (188o), of the third; and " The Irish Famine" (about 1847) and " A Patient Life of Unrewarded Toil " (189o), of the last of these. Never has he treated religion from a sectarian point of view. Watts is before all things a painter with a grave and earnest purpose, painting because that form of expression was easier to him than writing, though he has published some few articles and pampphlets, chiefly on art matters; but he, too, has his lighter side, and has daintily treated the humorously fanciful in " Good luck to your fishing " (1889) ; " The habit does not make the monk " (1889), in which Cupid, half-hidden under the frock, taps maliciously at a closed door; and " Trifles Light as Air " (exhibited 1901), a swarm of little amorini drifting in the summer air like a cloud of gnats; while in " Experientia docet B.C." (1890), a primeval woman watching with admiration, not unmixed with anxiety, the man who has first swallowed an oyster, he condescends, not very successfully, to the frankly comic. These must be regarded, however, as merely the relaxations of the serious mind that has left its impress even on the relatively few, but very admirable, landscapes he produced, in which, as for instance " The Carrara Mountains from Pisa " (1881), a sober dignity of treatment is conspicuous. Watts's technique is as individual as his point of view. It is chiefly remarkable for its straightforwardness and simplicity, and G. F. Watts, R.A., by Charles T. Bateman. its lack of any straining after purely technical effects. The idea to be expressed is of far higher importance to him than the manner of expressing it. The statement of it should be a matter of good, sound workmanship, not of artistic agility or manual dexterity. To say what he has to say as clearly and briefly as may be is his aim, and when he has achieved the effect he desires, the method of his doing so is of no further moment. In the use of paint as paint, in the intrinsic beauties of surface and handling, he would seem in his later years to take no delight. Thus in parts of the picture the rough, coarse canvas he prefers may be so thinly covered that every fibre of the material can be seen, while in others a richly modelled impasto loads the surface. He employs, as far as possible, pure colours laid on in direct juxtaposition or broken into and across each other, not blended and commingled on the palette. He eschews all elaboration of detail and, except in portraiture, works rarely from the living model, neglecting minor delicacies of form or passages of local colour, conventionalizing to a standard of his own rather than idealizing—a process not always unproductive of faults of drawing and proportion, as in the figure of " Faith " (1896), or of singularities of tint, as in the curious leaden face and prismatic background in " The Dweller in the Innermost " (1886). He avoids, as a rule, the use of definite outline, leaving the limits of his forms to melt imperceptibly into the background; nor does texture interest him greatly, and a uniform fresco-like surface is apt to represent flesh and foliage, distance and foreground alike. He intends deliberately that the things he depicts, be they what they may, shall be symbols, useful for their meaning alone, and he makes no attempt at conferring on them an accurate actuality, which might distract the attention from the paramount idea. That this reticence is intentional may be learned from an examination of his earliest works, in which the accessories are rendered with a precise, if some-times a dry, truthfulness of observation; that it is not due to carelessness or indifference is shown by the inexhaustible patience with which each picture has been executed. His earlier pictures are unsurpassed in the art of England for fine technical qualities of colour and delicacy of handling. Though working unceasingly, Watts never hurried the completion of any canvas. Of two slightly differing versions of " Fata Morgana," both begun in x847, the first was not finished before 187o, the second not until ten years later. Even after finishing a picture sufficiently for exhibition, he often subsequently worked further upon it. The portrait of Lord Leighton, exhibited in 1881, was repainted in 1888; the version of " Love and Death," exhibited in 1877, and 1883, and all the pictures presented to the Tate Gallery in 1897, were more or less retouched when hung there. Furthermore, he painted more than one version of several of his favourite subjects, a circumstance which, combined with the fact that he rarely added the year to his signature and kept no record of his annual production, makes the task of precisely dating his pictures for the most part impossible, while it renders any attempt to dispose his works in periods untrustworthy and artificial, since even the growth and inevitable decay of artistic power are to a considerable extent obscured. Founded admittedly on the Grecian monuments, there is a sculpturesque rather than pictorial quality in most of his compositions, a regulated disposition which, though imparting often a certain air of unreality and detachment, inspires them nevertheless with that noble impressiveness which forms their most conspicuous characteristic. It is natural, therefore, that in sculpture itself he should also take a high place. A taste for this he acquired as a boy; he was a constant visitor to the studio of Behnes, where he not infrequently made drawings from the casts, though he was never in any sense his pupil. Among his works in this branch of art are a bust of " Clytie " (1868), monuments to the marquis of Lothian, Bishop Lonsdale and Lord Tennyson, a large bronze equestrian statue of " Hugo Lupus " at Eaton Hall (1884), and a colossal one of a man on horseback, emblematical of " Physical Energy," originally in-tended for a place on the Embankment, but destined to stand among the Matoppo Hills as an enduring evidence of the artist's admiration for Cecil Rhodes; a replica has been placed in Kensington Gardens. It was the practical idealism of Rhodes that appealed to him, and in this quality Watts himself was by no means lacking. Much of his time and attention was given to the promotion of the Home Arts and Industries Association; he assisted Mrs Watts with both money and advice in the founding of an art pottery at Compton, and in the building at the same place of a highly decorated mortuary chapel, carried out almost entirely by local labour; and it was entirely due to his initiative that the erection in Postmen's Park, Aldersgate Street, London, of memorial tablets to the unsung heroes of everyday life was begun.
End of Article: GEORGE FREDERICK WATTS (1817-1904)
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