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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

George Frederic Watts

The School of Lawgivers, 1853-59, George Frederic Watts
There has long been a controversy as to whether artists are made or born. Of course that's all predicated on a similarly long discussion of nature versus nurture regarding human development in general. As applied to the arts, the question is simply, do strong "art genes" matter more than art training in the development of outstanding artists. For every child prodigy whose talent has developed largely without much training or outside input, there is likely another artist having absolutely no family background in the arts who goes on to exceptional greatness as the result of perhaps a decade or more of art training. The latter might be represented by an artist such as the French Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau who did, in fact, spend nearly ten years studying art, as opposed to an artist such as the British painter, George Frederic Watts, who was born having no family background in the arts, who, against all odds, and with only meager academic training, became one of the most outstanding painters of portraits and allegories in 19th-century British art. He's sometimes been called "England's Michelangelo."

Four paintings from the House of Life Series, ca. 1884-1900
When we talk about Victorian art, which supposedly occupied the period from 1837 to 1876, though art historians tend to throw in the remaining twenty-four years of the century for the sake of simplicity. In any case, we today often look upon this era and its arts quite unfavorably. Though there were some less than profound painted examples, it's grossly unfair to lump all 19th-century British art into such disfavor. There were some important pieces produced by any number of artists during this period which ranged from really quite good to really outstanding. For all their occasional excesses and less occasional scandals, the Pre-Raphaelites are an excellent example of such greatness. Their era of remarkable achievement fell precisely in the middle of the Victorian period. George Frederic Watts is often lumped (or dumped) in amongst the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, though in fact, Watt's art transcends the movement.

Watts was never more insightful as a portrait artist then when painting himself.
George Frederick Watts was born in a quiet street in West Marylebone. His youth was fairly mundane with little brightness to enliven his story. His father, a maker of musical instruments, was poor; his mother died early; his home-life was overshadowed by his own ill-health; and the uncertain moods of other members of the family. Watt's education was casual at best, consisting mostly of reading books under the guidance of his father, who had little solid learning, but did have refined tastes and an inventive disposition. In his Sundays at home, where Sabbath rules limited his reading, young George became familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. He discovered for himself the Waverley Novels and Pope’s translation of the Iliad. He began from his earliest years to use his pencil with the eager and persistent enthusiasm which marks the born artist.

Energy, Rhodes Memorial, George Frederick Watts
Watts studied sculpture from the age of ten and learning to draw from the Elgin Marbles (which had once adorned the Parthenon in Athens). When Watts turned eighteen, he enrolled in London's Royal Academy, though from all accounts he needn't have bothered. He was a poor student hampered even more by poor instruction. Watts' career as an artist began in 1843. He was twenty-six. The British Government, not often guilty of fostering art or literature, can at least claim credit for having drawn Watts out of his seclusion at the very moment when his genius was ripe to bear fruit. In 1834 the Palace of Westminster, the home of the Houses of Parliament, burned to the ground. Architect, Sir Charles Barry, in 1840, was called upon to oversee the design and construction of the present day Westminster. With a view to decorating the walls with paintings, the Board of Works wisely offered prizes for cartoons, hoping thereby to attract the best talent of the country.

George Frederic Watts,
1849, Charles Couzens
The board had their work cut out for them when, by June, 1843, they had to judge among 140 designs by various competitors, awarding prizes varying in value from £100 to £300. Of the three first prizes, one fell to George Frederic Watts, who was practically unknown beyond the narrow circle of his friends, for a design depicting Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome. The cartoon is now lost. It was never used as intended. Instead, it fell into the hands of an enterprising dealer, who cut it up and sold fragments for what they were worth on the picture market at the time. Far more important was the encouragement given to the artist by such a success at such a critical time in his life, as well as the opportunity the money provided to travel abroad and enrich his experiences before his style was fully formed. Watts had long wished to visit Italy. After spending a few weeks in France, he made his way to Florence and its picture galleries. On the steamer between Marseilles and Leghorn (Livorno, today) Watts was fortunate in making friends with a British couple, who later introduced him to Lord Holland, the British Minister at Florence. Watts visited Lord and Lady Holland for four days. He remained there for four years. The Hollands were apparently very tolerant of long-term guests. In any case, Watts found a home where he could pursue his art under ideal conditions.

Mrs. G. F. Watts (Mary Fraser Seton),
1887, George Frederic Watts
Upon returning to England Watts propose a hemicycle fresco for the new Hall at Lincoln’s Inn being built by architect, Philip Hardwick, in the Tudor style. The new Benchers (lawyers) and architect alike cordially welcomed Watts’s offer to decorate a blank wall with fresco. Inasmuch as the work could only be carried out during the legal vacations, it proved a long project due to the difficulties of the process and interruptions caused by the artist’s ill-health. Watts planned it in 1852, began work in 1853, and didn't finish till 1859. The subject was a group of famous lawgivers, the chief figures being Moses, Mahomet, Justinian, Charle-magne, and Alfred. Titled The School of Lawgivers (top), and heavily influenced by Raphael's School of Athens (in the Vatican) it stands today as his most outstanding large scale work.

The Triumph of the Red Cross Knight, 1860, George Frederic Watts.
Aside from several outstanding portraits of high-ranking political and social leaders of his day, Watt's The Triumph of the Red Cross Knight (above) and Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes by Encountering them at Sea (below) also stand apart from the more modest efforts of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. In the 1860s, Watts' work shows the influence of Rossetti, often emphasizing sensuous pleasure and rich color. However, Watts's association with Rossetti changed during the 1870s, as his work increasingly combined Classical traditions with a deliberately agitated and troubled surface, in order to suggest the dynamic energies of life and evolution, as well as the tentative and transitory qualities of life.

Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes by
Encountering them at Sea, 1946. George Frederic Watts
The All-Pervading, 1887,
George Frederic Watts
In 1891 Watts bought land near Compton, south of Guildford, in Surrey. He named the house "Lim-nerslease" (combining the words "limner" or artist with "leasen" or glean), then built the Watts Gallery nearby, a museum dedicated to his work, which became the only purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist. It opened in April 1904, shortly before Watts' death in July. Watts's wife, Mary, had earlier designed the nearby Watts Mortuary Chapel, which Watts financed, and for which he painted a version of The All-Pervading (left) for the altar only three months before he died. Both Limnerslease and the chapel are now maintained, the house owned, by the Watts Gallery. In 2016 Watts' studio in the house re-opened, restored as nearly as possible using photographs from Watts' lifetime, as part of the Watts Gallery. The main residential section can be visited on a guided tour.

Tasting the First Oyster, ca 1883, George Frederic Watts.
(What a brave couple!)


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