George Frederic Watts
(London, 23 February 1817 - 1 July 1904, London)
In 1850, Watts visited the home of Valentine Prinsep's parents in Holland park, for a three-day visit, but instead he stayed until 1875, then he moved to the Isle of Wight. 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; among others were Sir Richard Burton, John Stuart Mill and Garibaldi.
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.
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.
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':
Since the revival of interest in Victorian painting, Watts may be regaining the recognition and respect he enjoyed in the 19th century. However, in terms of public recognition he is not as well-known as contemporaries like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
"Watts, George F., R. A. First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837. Received a prize of £300 for a cartoon, "Caractacus," and £500 for his "Alfred inciting the Saxons to Maritime Enterprise," from the Commissioners for the Decoration of the
Houses of Parliament in 1843. He painted also "St. George and the Dragon." at Westminster Palace, and a large fresco in the new Hall of Lincoln's Inn. Among his most successful portraits are those of:
Among his ideal and mythological works may be mentioned:
"He has contributed several portraits and ideal figures to the Grosvenor Gallery. His "Love and Death," "Esau," and a portrait of Heir Joachim and one of Robert Browning were at Paris in 1878.
"As a real master in tender coloring and admirable delicacy of touch, Mr. Watts does his gifts better justice in the beautiful girl's head named 'Choosing' [R. A., 1864]. Surely a work like this, with the many charming specimens in the same style which we have received from this artist, may be admitted as evidence in what direction his genius really lies; not force, thought, imagination, but refinement, grace, and fancy. It is his work in the latter manner which will at any rate be preferred by all the world to his attempts in the terribile via of life-size allegories." -- Palgrave's Essays on Art.
"But whether of distinguished men, or of men and women utterly unknown to the world, the portraits of Mr. Watts stand out in strong relief from the portraits of the painter's contemporaries, redeeming portrait-painting from the charge of decline in our day." -- Mrs. Tytler's Modern Painters.
"Mr. Watts has painted much, he has also thought much, and his works have come to be regarded as the exponents of a principle, and the expression of a conviction. As a painter, he has few followers, and no imitators, and yet the example he sets, if it have slight visible sign, is felt as a guiding power. It is well known that the use of fresco in domestic decoration, though still a novelty in England, finds abundant precedents in Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Genoa. Mr. Watts has perhaps done more than any other man to domesticate high art in the homes of England." -- J. B. Atkinson, in English Painters of the Present Day, 1871.
"Mr. Watts' portraits are all conscientious and subtle, and of great present interest, yet not realistic enough to last." -- Ruskin's Notes of the Academy, 1875.
Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works, by Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.
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