‘To the discenment of truth and beauty, to the arousing of man’s imagination, to the widening of the span of this celestial region, should Art be mainly dedicated, for this most truly is its mission.’ – G. F. Watts, 1888.
George Frederick Watts RA (1817-1904) was a very important Victorian artist, whose work appeals in a similar way to that of the Classicists such as Leighton and Albert Moore, or that of some of the Pre-Raphaelites. Watts in fact knew most of the Pre-Raphaelites, and was an important influence on the younger ones. He was also a close friend and ally of Leighton. However, he was part of no School or group, and went his own way, producing mainly allegorical pictures of great strength and mystery. He has been called ‘the Victorian Michaelangelo’. This comes out strongly in pictures such as The Infancy of Jupiter (1896).
Watts’s first noticed work was Caratacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, which won a prize of 300 guineas and was exhibited in Westminster Hall in 1842. Among his many important later paintings are Hope, Time, Death and Judgement and The Minotaur. He was also a sculptor, something that is reflected in the modelling of some of his paintings. Watts did a very little illustrative work, including making three drawings for Dalziel’s Bible Gallery, and around 1840, and then later, making some drawings of cricket, remarkably unexpected in style, which were reproduced as illustrations in the English Illustrated Magazine in the 1890s.
Watts was most philanthropic, and gave away many of his paintings. An interesting example is a version of Love and Life, described by The Magazine of Art as ‘without question one of the most beautiful canvases he has ever executed’, which Watts sent to the Chicago exhibition of 1893, and then presented as a gift to the American nation as his contribution to a permanent gallery. The painting was accepted by Special Act of Congress, but in the president’s absence, not allowed entrance to the White House on the grounds of it being obscene.
Works by Watts may be seen in many important British galleries. The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool has a particularly strong collection, including the Riders on Horses series, Love and Life and others in that series, Ariadne in Naxos and various sketches. The Lady Lever Gallery has And She Shall be Created Woman, a small version of the picture in the Tate Gallery, where Eve Tempted and Hope may also be found, along with Clytie and Love Triumphant. Fata Morgana is in the Leicester Art Gallery. The Aberdeen Art Gallery has a version of Eve Tempted and Orpheus and Eurydice, which it received via the Kepplestone Bequest. Portraits by Watts may be seen in the V & A and the National Portrait Gallery. An excellent church decoration by Watts is that at St James the Less, near the Tate Gallery.
Watts’s paintings are also found abroad, sometimes due to gifts by the artist. Time, Death and Judgement, an important work, is at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "George Frederick Watts" https://englishhistory.net/victorian/famous-people/george-frederick-watts/, February 17, 2022