Friday, 25 January 2013

Research - George Federic Watts


"I paint ideas, not things. I paint primarily because I have something to say, and since the gift of eloquent language has been denied to me, I use painting; my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall speak to the imagination and to the heart and arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity."

George Frederic Watts, (23 February 1817 – 1 July 1904) was a popular English Victorian painter and sculptor associated with the Symbolist movement. Watts became famous in his lifetime for his allegorical works, such as Hope and Love and Life. These paintings were intended to form part of an epic symbolic cycle called the "House of Life", in which the emotions and aspirations of life would all be represented in a universal symbolic language.

Watts was a modest, hard-working artist who twice refused a baronetcy and other honours, including an offer to become president of the Royal Academy, although he did accept the Order of Merit. His work as a sculptor exists in the Cecil Rhodes Memorial, Cape Town. His chief work as a sculptor is the heroic figure of a man on horseback known as Physical Energy, casts of which are on the Cecil Rhodes estate and in Kensington Gardens, London. 

A portrait painter and sculptor, George Frederick Watts was born in London, the son of a piano maker. Initially, he wanted to become a sculptor, and at the age of 10 was apprenticed to William Behnes. However, in 1835, at the age of 18, he went to the RA Schools, where he remained for only a short period, and thereafter was mainly self-taught. After he first exhibited The Wounded Heron at the Royal Academy, painting became his main preoccupation. When his picture Caractacus won a £300 prize, he used the money to finance a trip to Italy, where he stayed with friends in Florence. He did not return to England until 1847, when his painting Alfred won the first prize of £500 in a House of Lords competition.

In 1850 Watts visited the home of Valentine Prinsep's parents in Holland park, supposedly for a three-day visit, but instead he stayed for thirty years. The Prinseps seem to have borne the situation cheerfully, and it no doubt gave them a certain cachet in the Bohemian circles in which they moved, which included such writers and painters as Thackeray, Dickens, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Fortunately, Watts was a man of frugal habits. Although he had been depressed and unhappy when he had moved in with the Prinseps, Watts blossomed in this strange household, where notable writers and painters were treated with reverence.
As a portrait artist, his gallery of eminent Victorians is unsurpassed: included among his sitters were the poets Tennyson, Swinburne and Browning, the artists Millais, Lord Leighton, Walter Crane and Burne-Jones; others were Sir Richard Burton, John Stuart Mill and Garibaldi, to mention only a few. He finally left the Prinseps' home in 1875 and moved to the Isle of Wight. In 1864 Watts married the actress Ellen Terry, who was only 16, although the marriage was short-lived, and he remarried in 1886 when he moved to Limnerslease, near Guildford. His new wife was Mary Fraser-Tytler, thirty-two year his junior. She was of Scottish descent, growing up in a castle on the shores of Loch Ness, and was an artist in her own right.

Some examples of his work

Death crowning innocence  1899

   Death, Time and Judgment 1870-1886

Eve Repentent  1875

Love and Death 1874-77

The critic G.K. Chesterton said of Watts: ".. 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.... A primeval vagueness and archaism hangs over the all the canvases and cartoons, like frescoes from some prehistoric temple. There is nothing there but the eternal things, day and fire and the sea, and motherhood and the dead."
Another contemporary admirer, Hugh MacMillan, wrote that Watts "surrounds his ideal forms with a misty or cloudy atmosphere for the purpose of showing that they are visionary or ideal.... His colours, like the colour of the veils of the ancient tabernacle, like the hues of the jewelled walls of the New Jerusalem, are invested with a parabolic significance.... To the commonest hues he gives a tone beyond their ordinary power... Watts is essentially the seer. He thinks in pictures that come before the inward eye spontaneously and assume a definite form almost without any effort of consciousness."

Watts' declared aims were clear: to paint pictures that appealed 'to the intellect and refined emotions rather than the senses':
                                                           Hope 1885

Before this project I had not heard of Watts but I can not help but feel I have seen his images either in passing or by the subconscious. His paintings are so dramatic but soft and gentle in the way he paints his figures and their expressions. They have a dream like quality but are very realistic and incredibly clever. His paintings have very heavy symbolism in them portraying Watt's feelings and messages he felt towards issues in his life or the world around him. Especially being an artist in the Victorian era he would paint everyday things such as poverty but make it beautifully melchonlgic using symbolism and his own views.

One of his most famous paintings is that of Hope this painting is of a fragile and possibly blind female figure on top of the world holding a harp. In a sense it could be portraying Hope as a human form and how tragic the condition is of this human impulse. That hope is so fragile and seems to hold on in the human condition despite the state of the human or the world in question. That the girl still holds on strong to the harp with the single string even though she appears to be weak, blind and vulnerable. The palette of the piece is quite dark and sets a very dark mood that adds to the fragility of the figure. The dusty colours of the earth and the background suggest a dry, dusty, planet where life might be minimum or dying. But the lighter colours upon the figure seem to show further the single ray of light in amongst the dark and dust this is hope. 
The title suggests it self that it is truly optimistic piece showing the true perseverance of the human condition and psyche. Many people have been inspired by this painting especially those in crisis including Holocaust survivors. Hope is a universal ideal shared by the world which makes this image so powerful and haunting. Because of Watt's moving and clever imagery I felt greatly inspired and enlightened by learning about his work and the symbolism within it. This is why I have used his work as part of my research as I wish to create beauty from the negative and the anxieties.

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