Hope by George Frederic Watts

Hope by George Frederic Watts (1886)

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian painter and sculptor who was closely associated in his later years with the Symbolism Movement.  Symbolism came about in the 1880’s but by the end of the century it had almost died away having been overshadowed by the birth and rise of Modernism.  The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works.  Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect.

George Frederic Watts was born on February 23rd 1817 in Marylebone, London and his Christian names were those of the great musician George Frederic Handel who was born on that date some 132 years earlier.  His mother and father struggled financially and this was not helped by the poor health of his mother who was to die when George was very young.   His father was a piano maker and took it upon himself to educate his son at home.  Much emphasis was placed on a conservative Christian upbringing and a love for classical literature.  Unfortunately, as is so often the case, his father’s compelling desire to force his Christian views on his son, eventually made George turn completely away from organised religions.

At the age of ten, George had some informal tuition from William Behnes, a local sculptor where he practiced drawing from the sculptures.  This training proved a godsend as by the age of sixteen he was able to support himself from the sale of his portraits.  In 1835, aged eighteen years of age, George Watts enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools.  Although Watts never enjoyed his time at the establishment and would often fail to attend he did exhibit some of his works at the 1837 Royal Academy Exhibition.  It was whilst studying art that he met and became great friends with Alexander Constantine Ionides, an art patron and collector.  Ionides commissioned many paintings from Watts and became one of his earliest patrons.

By 1840 Watts had moved away from portraiture and concentrated on historical paintings.  In 1843, he entered the first competition to design murals for the new Houses of Parliament.  Entries were to be of a narrative genre which endorsed patriotism and thus would be appropriate to the new legislative building.   His entry, Caractacus Led in Triumph through the Streets of Rome, gained him first prize in the competition and the prize money helped fund his artistic study trip to Italy where he remained for four years.  During his stay in Italy he learnt the secrets of fresco painting and completed many large scale paintings depicting scenes from Romantic literature.  However, he never gave up on his other artistic loves, portraiture and landscape painting.

Watts returned to London in 1847 and once again entered the Houses of Parliament competition.  This was the fourth one organised by the monarch and the government.  Watts won the competition with his entry Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Encounter the Danes at Sea.   Watts suffered from bouts of depression and he expressed his personal struggle with the illness in a series of four paintings which evoked a social realism theme.  One of these works entitled Found Drowned was my featured painting in My Daily Art Display of July 4th 2011.  In 1851 he went to live with his friend Henry Thoby Prinsep and his wife Sara at Little Holland House.  He lived with them for the next twenty-four years and it undoubtedly provided Watts with a secure environment for him to work and relax and provide a safe haven away from the rigours of the real world.  Little Holland House was a favourite meeting place of the young Pre-Raphaelite artists and literary people like Tennyson and it gave Watts then ideal opportunity to paint portraits of the aspiring literary and artistic luminaries of the day.

In 1878 Watts took part in the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris and submitted nine paintings and one sculpture.  He became an instantaneous celebrity on the European art scene.  During the 1880’s,  he produced many symbolic paintings which displayed close links to the work of his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Edward Burne-Jones.

In 1886 at the age of 69 Watts re-married, to Mary Fraser-Tytler, a Scottish designer and potter who was some thirty three years his junior.   In 1891 he bought a house in Compton, near Guilford, in Surrey and in 1904 had a gallery built nearby which became known as the Watts Gallery and which was dedicated to his work.  The Watts Gallery is still a very popular venue for art lovers. George Frederic Watts died that year aged 87, shortly after the gallery opening.

Hope is looked upon as certainly the most influential, and outstanding if not most unusual of all George Frederic Watts’ paintings. This portrayal of the poignant musician has struck a chord with audiences and critics ever since it was first displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886.  In 1887 at the Royal Jubilee exhibition held in Manchester the painting took pride of place in the middle of an entire wall dedicated to Watts’ work.  Numerous reproductions were made of this painting and many who saw it were deeply affected by what they saw and Watts received many letters from people who were greatly moved by the emotional impact it had on them. In the painting Watts has personified Hope as a young woman seated on a globe, hunched over, appearing to be almost asleep.  She wears a blindfold which symbolises her blindness and to the mental state she embodies. What was it about this work that such an effect on people?  It has to be Watts’ portrayal of this hunched, isolated, blindfolded and barefoot woman who appears to be on the edge of despair.  So why the title Hope?   Maybe in this case it is not hope meaning one’s optimistic thoughts but more of a feeling of almost despair; a hoping against hope.   As we take in the picture of the girl bent over listening to the music from her lyre we wonder why Watts has chosen the title.  The bluish grey background induces a melancholy mood. One critic commented that the painting did not evoke a feeling of hope and should have been entitled Despair.  Maybe that was the reason that in another version of his painting he has added a single star to the background to symbolise hope.  The girl, Hope, bends her ear to catch the music from the last remaining string of her almost shattered lyre. It is the faintest of hope as symbolised in her musical instrument which now with just one string left for her to make music and once that has broken, all hope of her producing a musical sound has disappeared.

Did the painting appeal to those who had almost lost hope themselves and in some way empathised with the vulnerability of the woman in the painting?  Watts had always sought, through his paintings, to communicate his message to as many people as possible. Some would criticise this aspect as being somewhat patronizing but Watts was a great master of narrative paintings and this was probably the reason why his conventional patriotic works he put forward for the Houses of Parliament were so successful.  Watts was surprised by the critical acclaim and popularity of his painting and attempted to follow up his success with Hope with two other works entitled, Faith and Charity, the other two “theological virtues” but they neither received the critical acclaim that his Hope painting achieved nor were they as popular with the public.

This version of the painting can be found in the Tate Gallery, London.

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

For the second consecutive day I want to present a painting to you which has a connection with a poem.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Found Drowned and was painted by the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts in 1850.  It is almost certain that the idea for the painting came from Watts having read The Bridge of Sighs, the poem written by Thomas Hood just before his death in 1845.

Watts was born in London in 1817 and his Christian names came from the fact that he was born on the composer, George Frederic Handel’s birthday.  He was brought up in an impoverished household, did not attend school, being taught at home by his father.  Despite these early setbacks in life, he achieved acceptance into the Royal Academy when he was eighteen years of age.  In 1843 he won first prize in an artistic competition to design a mural for the Houses of Parliament and although this never came to fruition, the monetary value of the prize enabled him to travel to Italy.  He remained in Italy until 1847 at which time he returned to London.

On his return to London he made the acquaintance of Henry Prinseps, an amateur artist and director of the East India Company, along with his circle of friends and in 1850, Prinseps, his wife Sara, along with some of her sisters and Watts obtained a twenty-one year lease on Little Holland House which belonged to Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland, and a friend of Watts.  The house, not only became a place for them to all live and entertain their friends, but it gave Watts a studio for his painting.

In 1864 Watts painted portraits of the Terry sisters, Kate Terry and her famous actress sister Ellen Terry.  Watts was besotted by Ellen and despite the fact that she was still a little way short of seventeen years of age and he was thirty years her senior, they married.  The marriage was doomed to failure and a year after the marriage she eloped with her lover forcing Watts to sue for divorce.

In the early 1870’s when the lease ran out on the Little Holland House, Watts acquired another house in London and also one in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.  In 1877 his divorce with Ellen Terry finally came through and nine years later at the age of 69 Watts re-married, this time his bride was Mary Fraser-Tytler,  a Scottish designer and social reformer, some thirty-three years his junior!   In 1891 he bought land in Guilford, Surrey and they named the establishment Limnerslease, which was a combination of the words “limner” meaning artist and “leasen” meaning glean and by it they had built the Watts Gallery which was a museum dedicated to his work.  It was the first and only remaining purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist.  It eventually opened in April 1904, shortly before the death of Watts.

So that is the story of today’s artist and so now let us study his poignant painting and understand why he should depict such a heart-rending scene.  When Watts returned to London from Italy he was traumatized by the extremes of riches and poverty that he could see all about him.  It moved him and he realised that through his art he could bring home the inequalities of life.

The background of the painting is the London skyline and we are viewing it from under Waterloo Bridge and in the distance we can just make out Hungeford Suspension Bridge.  Waterloo Bridge had been a common place for suicides with people throwing themselves off the structure into the Thames.  In the foreground Watts has painted a “fallen woman”, a reasonably common subject in Victorian paintings.  She has drowned and been washed up on the shores of the Thames. Was it an accident or had life proved just too much for her to bear?  In those days, female suicides caused by adulterous relationships or financial hardship, which then led to prostitution, were not uncommon happenings.   Her body is lit up and is in stark comparison to the darkened background.  Her dress still floats in the murky polluted waters.  She is lying on her back with her arms stretched out in a cruciform adding religious symbolism to the picture.  In her left hand she is clutching hold of a chain, attached to which is a heart-shaped locket and this again makes us believe that unrequited love may have had some bearing on the situation.  In the night sky we see a very bright pin-point of light which could be a star of the planet Venus and Watts probably added this as a symbol of hope that maybe there will be a better after-life for the dead woman.  Look at the young woman’s face.  It appears calm.  Maybe at last she is at peace with herself.

It is interesting to note that the title of the painting Found Drowned was legal phraseology often used by coroners when there is no conclusive evidence of suicide, such as a note, and thus the coroner’s report avoids the stigma attached to suicides, which would automatically rule out a Christian Burial.

I end today’s blog with the Thomas Hood’s poem Bridge of Sighs which it is believed was the basis of Watts’ painting.  Read it through and then look at the painting and see if you agree that there is a connection between the two.

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!

Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!